ROCHESTER, New York – “The punitive, repressive system we inherited from the Soviet Union cannot be reformed unless there is a radical rethink of the aims and objectives of the penitentiary and criminal justice systems. As long as criminal law is repressive in nature, the justice system is accusatory, and the main way of dealing with crime is by locking people up rather than considering alternative forms of punishment, it is hard to see things changing for the better.”
– Yevgeny Zhovtis in an interview with The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 2012
Yevgeny Zhovtis is a Kazakhstani human rights activist who began his activity as an advocate for worker’s rights, mainly for those of miners, during the Soviet Era. He is also the founder of the human rights watch group The Kazakhstan American Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, which currently operates in the country. In 2009, Zhovtis was arrested and imprisoned by Kazakhstani authorities after he accidentally killed a pedestrian in a car accident.
His trial was faulty, to say the least, riddled with procedural violations (most notably the denial to a defense) that resulted in a sentence of four years in prison. Many agree that the Kazakhstani government used the incident as grounds to put Zhovtis away for his human rights activity, which directly challenged the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev’s government has been in place since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and deeply discourages the freedom of assembly. Political activists that represent any sort of dissenting opinion can be detained and fined in Kazakhstan.
Zhovtis stands for this type of open opposition to the Kazakhstani government. His organization exposes the most unsavory aspects of Kazakh policy–including the repression of religion, a gross lack of child labor laws, and the blatant silencing of dissent–to the international community.
According to Amnesty International’s 2012 report on Kazakhstan, the security services of Nazarbayev’s government are also becoming increasingly brutal, “Reports of torture and other ill-treatment by security forces continued unabated, despite government claims that it was successfully addressing these violations. Security forces used excessive force to break up large-scale protest strikes by oil and gas workers and detained dozens of protesters and their supporters, as well as trade union and opposition activists.”
A similar report from Human Rights Watch cites a particularly heinous new law in Kazakhstan that targets minority religious groups, stating, “on October 13 President Nazarbaev signed a restrictive new law, ‘On Religious Activities and Religious Associations.’ According to Forum 18, an independent international religious freedom group, the new law ‘severely restrict[s]freedom of religion and belief’ and ‘imposes a complex four-tier registration system, bans unregistered religious activity, imposes compulsory religious censorship and requires both central and local government approval to build or open new places of worship.’”
It has become increasingly clear over the last few years that the Kazakh state is oppressive. Zhovtis is only one victim in a string of arrests that have targeted human rights activists in the country. Trade union lawyer Natalia Sokolova was sentenced to six years in prison for “inciting social discord” during protests in Aktau city last year. Surely these gross human rights violations require international attention.
When a government is sending its own citizens to prison on the basis of dissidence, the freedoms of speech and assembly are being denied to the people of that nation. Perhaps it would be wise for the Kazakh authorities to heed the words of Yevgeny Zhovtis. The system of intimidation and imprisonment is most certainly corrupt, and “the aims and objectives of the criminal justice system” must surely be reevaluated.
– Josh Forget
Photo: Radio Free Europe