September 03. EurasiaNet

by Joanna Lillis

Yevgeny Zhovtis, one of Kazakhstan’s leading human rights activists, was found guilty on September 3 of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison. Prior to the reading of the verdict, Zhovtis denounced his two-day trial as a “political setup.”

Zhovtis’ case stemmed from an auto accident on July 26, in which the car he was driving hit and killed a pedestrian, Kanat Moldabayev, in a rural area of the Almaty Region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

From the start, Zhovtis and his counsel have insisted that he committed no crime, contending that Moldabayev had abruptly wandered into the road on which Zhovtis’ car was traveling, and there was no way to stop his vehicle in time. He also complained that authorities did not follow due process during the investigatory phase of the case.

During a break before the presiding judge, Kulan Tolkunov, announced his decision on September 3, Zhovtis vowed that he would appeal what he expected to be a guilty verdict. He went on to express a belief that he was being punished for his professional work, and for his criticism of government policies. “It’s a demonstration of strength, a demonstration of the absence of the rule of law,” Zhovtis said, referring to the legal case against him. “It’s all decided at the political level.”

Immediately after sentencing, Zhovtis was bundled out of the courtroom and into a waiting sedan without having the ability to talk with supporters, or make any kind of statement. Supporters, including rights activists and opposition politicians, who packed the public gallery during the trial, shouted “Shame, Shame” as Zhovtis was led away to immediately begin serving his prison term. [Editor’s Note: Zhovtis is a board member of the Central Eurasia Project (CEP) of the Open Society Institute (OSI) in New York. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of CEP/OSI].

The trial appeared to hinge on evidence – a document called an “auto-technical expert conclusion” – presented by prosecutors that indicated that Zhovtis could have avoided hitting Moldabayev. Zhovtis and his defense team unsuccessfully sought to have the evidence tossed out, arguing that its conclusions were speculative and not based on any hard data.

Prosecutor Altay Zhanibekov declined to comment on the trial. During the second day of testimony prosecutors revealed that test results showed no traces of alcohol in Moldabayev’s system at the time of the tragedy. An initial test also showed that Zhovtis had no alcohol in his system. But a second test on Zhovtis turned up a minute trace, which was well under the legal limit for intoxication.