Political trial seen as a test for Kazakhstan by Western partners

The trial of Pussy Riot isn’t the only test of human rights this week – but it’s the most high profile. That case was pretty cut-and-dry – if the women got harsh sentences, it would have been indicative of Russia’s crackdown on human rights. The women got two years for a non-violent protest in a church, and it has lead to international condemnation and protests against Russia.

Comparatively, in Kazakhstan, where three political opposition leaders are on trial, experts at the Jamestown Foundation  argue that the Kazakh case isn’t quite about a threat to the administration, but rather about criminal activity and the manipulation of the Kazakh political system by external third parties for gain.

As my mother so aptly observed: “Everything you write on that Central Asia blog is very confusing.” So – lets break this issue down.

The trial takes place in the wake of riots in 2011 that ruined Kazakhstan’s reputation for stability internationally. Those being prosecuted are accused of orchestrating the riots, which mainstream media reports killed at least 15 people when police opened fire on protesters. The riots were seen as the most serious challenge et to President Nazarbayev in his two decades of leading Kazakhstan.

1. The men on trial are three Kazakh political opposition leaders, one from opposition political party Alga!, one from oppostion party People’s Front, and one who is a trade union leader and activist. The riots occured after months of oil workers being sacked and complaints of unfair labor practices.

2. Kazakh authorities are charging these three men with inciting violence through political activity (this charge is popular lately).

3. We know there is a documented crackdown on human rights in Kazakhstan, which has been reported on by Western media outlets since riots in December 2011.

4. Human rights groups in Kazakhstan are stating that the trial is a show to make it clear to that dissidence isn’t tolerated.

4. Western partners, particularly the United States, stated they will be closely watching the trial to determine if recent economic gains in Kazakhstan are being made at the expense of human rights. So, should the trial be consider less-than free or fair, it could have implications for economic benefits provided by a happy relationship with the US.

The trail grows complicated after these basic facts are understood. Kazakh opposition is fragmented, meaning that these leaders likely don’t present an existential threat to President Nazarbayev or his government. So, human rights groups indicate that knowing these men aren’t an existential threat means that a harsh sentence, such as the 12 year maximum being discussed, would be solid evidence that Kazakhstan has indeed abandoned pretense of human rights as a pillar of their government.

To justify what seems to be an impending harsh statement, Kazakh authorities are stating that there are external forces at work, and outside forces are manipulating the opposition, forming a criminal alliance to destabilize the country. 

Considering one of the defendants pled guilty, another admitted responsibility without admitting guilt, and the main defendant doesn’t speak Kazakh (the language he is being tried in),  the issue isn’t going to be clear-cut. Eurasianet points out that previously, trials in related to the riots have been open, with access for journalists and human rights advocates. (Side note – the Eurasianet article is the best analysis of the trial I’ve seen).

To conclude – the Pussy Riot trial was much, much easier to keep up with.

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