Alert Issued: September 14, 2009
On September 3, 2009, leading Kazakh human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis was sentenced to four years in prison for manslaughter. His sentence was based on charges arising from a traffic accident in which a pedestrian was killed.
Zhovtis’ trial, in a small town outside of Almaty, was marred by numerous violations of the right to a fair trial. Human Rights First is concerned that he may be the victim of a politically motivated miscarriage of justice, designed to punish him for his sustained advocacy of human rights and democracy in the Central Asian republic.
TAKE ACTION NOW to urge the Kazakh authorities to grant Yevgeny Zhovtis a fair trial.
This would mean urging the authorities to:
- Remove the flawed conviction against Zhovtis
- Re-examine the contested evidence
- If there is still a case after this review, the authorities should grant Zhovtis a fair trial in accordance with Kazakh and international law
Yevgeny Zhovtis is Kazakhstan’s leading human rights defender and democracy advocate. He is the director of the International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, one of Kazakhstan’s few independent non-governmental organizations focused on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
On the evening of July 26, Zhovtis was involved in an automobile accident when the car he was driving struck and killed a pedestrian on a dark country road. The circumstances of the tragic accident are now in dispute.
At the trial, the prosecution alleged that Zhovtis could have avoided the man walking on the roadway and that his negligence resulted in the fatality. Zhovtis and his lawyers have maintained that he could not have avoided the man. Zhovtis has also denied suggestions that he was driving while under the influence of alcohol – a contention supported by a blood test administered soon after the accident took place.
Zhovtis’ right to a fair trial was violated in the pre-trial phase of the proceedings as well as the trial itself. First, Zhovtis was not informed that he was considered a suspect in the case until August 14. Until that time he had been fully cooperating with investigators unaware that he would soon be charged in the case. This is an apparent violation of Article 14 (3)(a) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires a defendant to be promptly informed in detail of the charges against him.
A second problem in the pre-trial phase relates to the expert forensic report on whether Zhovtis was driving while impaired. An initial forensic report appears to have exonerated Zhovtis, but the prosecution apparently secured a second forensic report that found that Zhovtis could have avoided the accident. Zhovtis’ lawyers tried to challenge this evidence but were denied in the pre-trial phase and at the trial itself. This is an apparent violation of Article 14 (3)(e) of the ICCPR, which provides a defendant with the right “to examine, or have examined, the witnesses against him.”
During the trial the defense was only granted 40 minutes to prepare its closing argument. The rushed proceedings and hasty conviction failed to comply with Article 14 (3)(b) of the ICCPR requiring adequate time to prepare a defense.
Fifteen minutes after the end of the trial, the judge emerged with a lengthy typed judgment suggesting a lack of impartiality and disregard for the presumption of innocence. This incidence is a yet another apparent violation of the fair trial standards set out in the ICCPR.
Zhovtis’ conviction is subject to appeal. A fair appeal process should recognize that Zhovtis’ conviction is flawed and should order a review of the contested evidence in the case. This appeal should also respect the right of the defense to challenge evidence that may be presented against Zhovtis, with witnesses and expert testimony of its own.
Kazakhstan is ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev who has been in office since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since its independence, Kazakhstan has had a poor human rights record that includes suppression of dissent, denial of freedom of speech, and a weak judiciary. Zhovtis and the organization he directs have been one of the few sources of independent information on human rights conditions in Kazakhstan.
The imprisonment of Kazakhstan’s leading human rights defender casts a shadow over Kazakhstan’s forthcoming chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In view of Kazakhstan’s forthcoming chairmanship of an organization designed to promote human rights and democracy, its human rights record has come under increased international scrutiny. It is in the interest of the government of Kazakhstan to find a resolution to this case that reflects positively on the Kazakh judiciary and on respect for human rights and the rule of law in Kazakhstan.
March 09, 2010
Subject: Fair Trial for Kazakh Human Rights Defender
Dear President Nazarbayev,
I am writing to express my concern over the recent trial and imprisonment of the prominent Kazakh human rights and democracy activist Yevgeny Zhovtis. On the evening of July 26, 2009, Mr. Zhovtis was involved in an automobile accident in which a pedestrian was killed. This was a tragic event and I express my sympathy for the victim and his family. However, I am concerned that Mr. Zhovtis, is now serving a four year prison term for manslaughter after being convicted in a trial which appears to have fallen short of international fair trial standards.
Both the pre-trial phase and the actual trial violated international fair trial standards set forth in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by the government of Kazakhstan in 2006. Mr. Zhovtis appears not to have been informed, promptly and in detail, of the charges against him. He was only informed that he was a suspect in the case on August 14, after he had been fully cooperating in the investigation for almost three weeks.
In addition, Zhovtis and his defense team appear not to have been permitted to challenge the forensic evidence used against him. This matter is particularly important in this case since an initial forensic report apparently exonerated Zhovtis and a second report was used to convict him.
The hasty trial proceedings did not allow sufficient time for Zhovtis’ defense team to prepare its closing arguments. In addition, fifteen minutes after the end of the trial, the judge was ready with a lengthy typed judgment convicting Zhovtis. This suggests a lack of impartiality and a denial of the right to presumption of innocence.
The flawed conviction against Yevgeny Zhovtis should be voided on appeal and the contested evidence in the case should be re-examined to determine if there is in fact a criminal case for Zhovtis to answer. If, after this review it is decided that Zhovtis should still faces charges, then he should receive a fair trial in accordance with Kazakh and international law.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. I will continue to monitor this case closely.