Authorities said it was the third attempt this year against Kazakh political exiles in Austria, and it was bold: Assailants pressed a gun to the man’s forehead and broke his translator’s nose before cries from passers-by prompted the attackers to flee — all within view of a local police station.
The former official, Alnur Musayev, said he thinks the men were hired by agents of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev as part of a vendetta against associates of Rakhat Aliyev, the president’s former son-in-law. Once a senior diplomat, Mr. Aliyev antagonized the president early last year by vowing to challenge Mr. Nazarbayev in the Central Asian country’s next elections.
Opposition and human rights groups said the incident in Vienna fits a pattern of efforts by the Nazarbayev regime to muzzle rivals. This is especially troubling, they say, because Kazakhstan is to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental body devoted to security and democracy, in 2010. Foreign ministers from the 56-nation group meet Thursday and Friday in Finland.
Kazakhstan, situated between China and Russia, has blossomed into the region’s biggest economy. Its strategic location, secular government and substantial mineral and energy reserves have prompted the United States to seek closer ties. But critics say that rigged elections, severe restrictions on the media and systemic corruption have hamstrung the country’s transition to a democratic state.
Mr. Aliyev, 45, a businessman who has served as ambassador to Austria and the OSCE, was dismissed in May after criticizing Mr. Nazarbayev’s move to amend the national constitution to enable him to be president for life.
Kazakh officials then issued an arrest warrant and extradition request, citing Mr. Aliyev’s purported involvement in the January beatings and abductions of two bank officials in Kazakhstan — a charge Mr. Aliyev denies as politically motivated.
Austria has refused to extradite Mr. Aliyev, fearing that he would not be given a fair trial.
The Kazakh government nonetheless convicted Mr. Aliyev and Mr. Musayev in absentia, along with 14 others, in a closed military trial on charges of seeking to overthrow the state, sharing state secrets, running an organized-crime group and “abuse of power.”
According to a recent report by Amnesty International, supporters and employees of Mr. Aliyev were arbitrarily detained and held “incommunicado in pre-charge and pre-trial detention facilities” where they were “tortured or otherwise ill-treated with the aim of extracting ‘confessions’ that they had participated in the alleged coup plot.”
“I believe that we witnessed another display of Kafkaesque justice in the case of the secret trial against the group, which is indicative of President Nazarbayev’s continued unwillingness to treat his political opponents in a civilized and fair manner,” said Peter Zalmayev of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
The Kazakh Embassy in Austria declined a request for comment. An official at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington said that the press spokesman was traveling and could not be reached.
Kazakh authorities have charged that Mr. Aliyev abducted two managers at Nurbank, a bank under his control plagued by financial irregularities, and then threatened to shoot them if they did not sign over assets.
Some observers have said that Mr. Aliyev turned vengeful after losing what they called ill-gotten media and banking assets, as well as his marriage to Mr. Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, also an influential politician, which had ensured his place in the inner circle of power.
In a recent interview overseen by a bodyguard at a busy downtown cafe, Mr. Aliyev said he came from a system that was far from perfect, and that it was his nascent efforts to combat corruption and push for reforms that got him into trouble.