For a country set to take over the leadership of Europe’s top human rights organization next year, Kazakhstan’s recent jailing of a prominent activist might suggest it’s not entirely qualified for the job. Human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis, a long-time critic of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s tight grip on power and his government’s widespread rights abuses, was sentenced to four years in prison following a car accident in July that left a pedestrian dead. Human Rights Watch said the trial “did not meet basic fair trial standards,” citing the judge’s refusal to consider key evidence from Zhovtis’s lawyers and other inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case.
Kazakhstan, an oil-rich nation bordering on Russia and China that has been led by Nazarbayev since 1991, has a history of using trumped-up charges or tough laws to silence its critics. The trial has shone a spotlight on Kazakhstan—and its relationships with Western nations—as it prepares to take over the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The position was granted after the county’s foreign minister promised in 2007 to reform strict media legislation and election laws, though to date very little has changed.
In fact, there’s little incentive for Kazakhstan to improve its human rights record. It isn’t likely to be asked to give up the role at the OSCE, and foreign officials continue to stop by—Britain’s Europe Minister Glenys Kinnock was there last week speaking of the two countries’ “strong commercial ties.” Canada and the U.S. have also invested in the country, and are eager to stay in Nazarbayev’s good graces. His ace? The Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, the world’s biggest oil discovery since 1968, which will make Kazakhstan one of the world’s top 10 oil producers by 2015.