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Kazakhstan: Where the streets have no name
The streets of Aktau, Kazakhstan have no names. Literally. The city was founded to house workers in the early 1960s, when the Soviet Union was ascendant.
The housing blocks had numbers and as the city grew the numbers stayed – a system of numbering microdistrict, house and apartment developed leaving each building with a 3 number code. Though the streets do not have names, the city has had two in its short history. Originally Aktau was known as Shevchenko, after the Ukrainian poet Tara Shevchenko, who was exiled to the area for his political views towards the Czar in the mid-19th century.
Somewhat ironic then the trial I attended today in Aktau of the opposition political leader Vladimir Kozlov. The trial is connected by the events of December 16-17 in Zhanaozen, where striking oil workers were met by security forces, and led to a confrontation in which more than a dozen people were killed, to the case of human rights defender and oil worker Roza Tuletaeva. She was sentenced to 7 years in prison, recently reduced to 5 years. In what local observers told me was a retro-Soviet style show trial, the prosecutor read out the indictment, which amounted to over 1,100 pages. While I don’t speak Russian or Kazakh, even I was able to decipher the repetition of names and certain words – as if by stating and restating the accusations they would become fact. Tuletaeva’s name kept coming up, with the prosecution insisting that a conspiracy existed. Roza was in fact supposed to be a witness in this case, but was transferred to a prison a few hours away only 2 days ago, seemingly to prevent her from denouncing in court a statement she was forced to sign.
The most important facet of the trial is the danger this case poses for independent media in the country. Among the charges is the allegation that the defendants conspired with and used mass media to blacken the image of the country, with the implication that independent media is a collateral target of the trial. The courtroom in this far-flung desert city of 165,000 was packed this afternoon, at least half of who were journalists. Journalists with independent media outlets like K+ television, the Respublika internet news site and others. Should the case go as many expect it will, these journalists and others like them around the country could find themselves targeted and shut down.
Aside from two of us from Front Line Defenders and Ph.D. student from a US university, there were no other foreign observers – at least one MEP had been denied a visa and because the trial was moved forward a week at the last minute, no other NGOs were prepared; it was coincidence that we were here at this time. Such tactics by the government only highlight the importance of having an independent media.
Following the trial, as I was sitting at dinner with human rights defender Evgeniy Zhovtis, himself freed in February after over two years in prison, I reflected on the crudeness of the efforts by the government to put away Roza, Vladimir Kozlov and others. Perhaps there is a bit of the Soviet legacy, but these tactics are not unique to the former Soviet Socialist Republics. These are the tactics of authoritarian regimes and their local apparatchiks.
But it is increasingly clear that people are not afraid, not intimidated and not stopping their demands for freedom, justice and transparency. This is not to say that revolution is about to erupt here… but from talking to human rights defenders after the trial, it is also clear that these efforts to stifle are failing.