On April 11, four days after a popular uprising deposed the authoritarian leader of next-door-neighbor Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev met with President Obama in Washington. According to Mike McFaul of the National Security Council, the two presidents discussed Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, economic cooperation and, lastly, Kazakhstan’s current chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As the OSCE holds human rights to be one of three essential components of European security, this part of the meeting included a “very lengthy discussion of democracy and human rights.”
Just a few days before Nazarbayev came to Washington, Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court announced—after a long delay—that on April 26 it would decide whether or not to hear an appeal in the case of Evgeniy Zhovtis, the country’s leading human rights activist. Zhovtis is serving a four-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter. His defense team and independent observers had catalogued numerous serious violations in the conduct of the investigation, trial, and appeal of his case.
According to McFaul, Obama and Nazarbayev discussed the Zhovtis case and “agreed that we need to try to find a creative solution to solve this very difficult issue.” Apparently, no one told the Kazakhstani Supreme Court, which just two weeks later decided it would not hear the Zhovtis appeal. Of course, Kazakhstan’s government will argue that its judiciary is independent and can’t be pressured by the executive branch.
How to respond (politely) to such an assertion? Well, let’s allow the State Department to do it for us. In this year’s annual human rights report, the State Department notes that: “The law does not provide for an independent judiciary. The executive branch limited judicial independence…Lack of due process was a problem, particularly in politically motivated trials.”
Having secured a meeting with President Obama in Washington, Nazarbayev still wants the U.S. to agree to Kazakhstan’s proposal to hold an OSCE summit this year in Astana and for Obama to attend. Washington needs to remember that the overthrow of Kyrgyz ruler Kurmanbek Bakiyev was sparked by public outrage over their leaders’ corruption, bad governance, and human rights violations. This was accompanied by widespread unhappiness at the failure of the American government to speak out about these glaring problems. Against this background, can the U.S. really afford to agree to an OSCE summit in Kazakhstan while Evgeniy Zhovtis, an innocent man, sits in prison?