One Year Later: Still Wrongfully Jailed

The following article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

One year ago today, Evgeniy Zhovtis, Kazakhstan’s best-known human rights defender, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to four years imprisonment.  For many years, Evgeniy was a thorn in the side of Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government, eloquently speaking out at home and abroad about his country’s abysmal human rights record.  Last year, he fell victim to the same kind of abuses from which he had long sought to protect others.

Evgeniy struck a pedestrian who was walking in the middle of an unlit stretch of rural highway at night.  He was not speeding, nor was he drunk.  Renowned Kazakhstani and Russian experts determined that there was no way he could have stopped in time.  But the trial court judge refused to allow them to testify or to consider their evidence, one of the many flagrant violations of Kazakhstan’s own laws that marred the investigation and trial.  In effect, the Kazakhstani system robbed Evgeniy of the right to defend himself.

Then, prison authorities subjected Evgeniy to further discriminatory treatment.  For example, prisoners in the minimum-security facility where he is incarcerated have the right to work on the local economy.  But prison officials denied Evgeniy the right to do so, even though—or, perhaps, especially because—the human rights organization he heads has an office in the town where he could work.

What has happened in the world during the year that Evgeniy has been incarcerated?  Kazakhstan has become chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the organization that made human rights issues a legitimate part of the dialogue on security in Europe.  Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been received in Washington by President Obama while at home he was named “Leader of the Nation,” which will give him significant political power and immunity from prosecution even after he leaves office.  And most recently, the United States and the other 55 OSCE participating states have agreed that Nazarbayev should host the first OSCE summit in more than a decade later this year.

Just a few days ago, the State Department issued a statement commemorating Kazakhstan’s Constitution Day.  In what one can only hope was intentional irony, the statement lauded the democratic tenets of Kazakhstan’s constitution, almost none of which are implemented in practice, and stated that Kazakhstan “will have the opportunity to further underscore your commitment to democratic progress when you welcome the world to the OSCE summit in Astana.”  It seems to me that if the Kazakh authorities have any interest in doing so then the best thing they can do would be to release Evgeniy Zhovtis.

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Is anyone filing a petition in the ECC courts due to the flagrant and obvious human rights violations?

Thanks, Kimberly. In terms of litigation, the Open Society Justice Initiative is working with Zhovtis’s defense team to submit a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee this month.

We argue that as a result of the unfair prosecution, trial, and appeal, Mr. Zhovtis has suffered several violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including violation of the right to a fair trial, the right to call independent expert witnesses, and the right to an appeal. He has also been subjected to arbitrary imprisonment and degrading prison conditions. Finally, as the trial process was used to silence a prominent human rights defender, this is in violation of the right to promote human rights, which is rooted in the rights to free movement, privacy, and reputation.

You can find more information about the case at

We will post the complaint here at the end of September.

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