Free Kazakh Human Rights Defender Yevgeniy Zhovtis

The Open Society Justice Initiative together with the Kazakhstan International Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law filed a complaint today with the UN on behalf of Yevgeniy Zhovtis, one of the country’s leading human rights defenders. It is the first complaint from Kazakhstan to reach the UN Human Rights Committee (see the statistical survey).

In September 2009, Zhovtis was sentenced to four years of imprisonment following a fatal traffic accident in which he struck a man crossing an unlit road at night. Zhovtis was driving sober, under the speed limit. International observers noted a number of flagrant procedural violations in both the investigation and the trial, which the subsequent appeals process only reinforced. In particular, Zhovtis was never given equal opportunity to present evidence and witnesses on his behalf, including independent experts who would have testified that he could not have prevented the accident.

Russian speakers can watch a short feature about the Zhovtis trial—it gives a pretty good impression of the atmosphere.

We have monitored Yevgeniy Zhovtis’s case from the beginning, and I attended his appeal hearing personally in October 2009.

At the end of September, I also visited Zhovtis in prison—a kolonia-poselenie or “colony-settlement” near the border with China—to discuss his complaint to the UN. The entire time I was there, a prison employee was present and taking notes on our conversation. Most of the prisoners in that institution work outside the facility; Yevgeniy is one of a handful who stay inside during the day. He is strictly monitored—more strictly than the rules of this type of institution provide for.

Yevgeniy is Yevgeniy, however, and his almost 20 years of human rights work have not been in vain. Now he helps fellow prisoners write their appeals and other complaints; he started a case against the prison administration for arbitrary restrictions of prisoners’ rights, including constitutionally prohibited forced labor. He writes a blog, The Sketchbook of a Settler, in Russian  about the rules in the “colony-settlement.”

It was incredibly sad to see Yevgeniy locked up in a remote part of the country. Our complaint to the UN argues that his imprisonment and the unfair, arbitrary restrictions he faces inside suggest the Kazakh government’s intent to silence a human rights defender. It is important to ensure that the Kazakh government does not succeed.

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