September 3, 2009
Freedom House is disturbed by the investigation and trial of prominent Kazakhstani human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis, who was convicted today of vehicular manslaughter. An appeals court should carefully investigate procedural violations that marred the investigation and trial and ensure that the case is not used to punish Zhovtis for his work.
In July, a car driven by Zhovtis struck and killed Kanat Moldabayev, who was walking down the middle of a dark highway at night. According to the investigation, Zhovtis was neither speeding nor intoxicated. However, the court ruled that Zhovtis could have stopped the car in time to avoid hitting the pedestrian, an assertion that witnesses in the car deny. Zhovtis was sentenced today to four years in prison effective immediately.
“Freedom House was saddened to hear about this tragic accident, which claimed the life of Mr. Moldabayev,” said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. “The Kazakhstani government now has a duty to ensure that this tragedy is not compounded by punishing Zhovtis without a fair trial.”
On Monday, Windsor and the executive directors of Human Rights Watch and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center expressed their concerns about several violations of Zhovtis’ rights in a letter to the Kazakhstani ambassador to the United States. The letter was also signed by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer and W. Cole Durham, Jr., a member of the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
The letter cited concerns by Zhovtis’s lawyers that the investigator considered their client a suspect, but failed to inform him of this for two weeks. During this time, Zhovtis participated in the investigation with the understanding that he was only a witness and so could not avail himself of the rights accorded to him under Kazakhstani law. During the trial, the judge flatly refused defense requests that he address these violations. He also gave only 40 minutes for the sides to prepare their final arguments, which did not give Zhovtis’ defense team sufficient time to analyze the testimony and prepare an adequate closing statement in defense of their client.
The UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, commonly referred to as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, calls on governments to protect activists against “threats, retaliation de facto or dejure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action” for their human rights activities. Zhovtis has won numerous international awards for his work, including the U.S.-EU Democracy-Civil Society Award and the International League for Human Rights Award.
“A miscarriage of justice in this case would be particularly troubling given that next year Kazakhstan will assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the continent’s premier regional organization covering human rights,” said Jeff Goldstein, Freedom House senior program manager for Central Asia.
Kazakhstan is ranked Not Free in the 2009 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in the 2009 version of Freedom of the Press.