- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The international community is quick to believe the worst about certain governments. That’s far too often been the case with Kazakhstan. The recent jailing of human rights advocate Yevgeni Zhovtis is a perfect example. The worst is simply not true for him and it’s time to set the record straight.

On July 30, 2009, Mr. Zhovtis was driving home from a fishing trip when he was blinded by the headlights of oncoming cars. As a result, his SUV struck and killed a young man in the middle of the road near the city of Almaty.

These facts are not in dispute, nor is the following: In Kazakhstan, running over pedestrians is a crime. From January to July of 2009, 179 similar cases occurred in Kazakhstan and in every one of those that involved loss of life or serious injury (136 cases, or 76 percent), the person responsible was sentenced to prison.

Mr. Zhovtis was treated no differently than anyone else. He was not punished because he publicly disagreed with the country’s Internet policy. He was not punished because he spoke out about what he considered human rights problems. He was punished because he broke a law and for no other reason.

The Kazakh legal system imposes absolute liability on anyone who causes death or severe injury to another human being. The court ruled that Mr. Zhovtis did not take the necessary precautions to avoid the accident. He failed to stop or slow his vehicle as the law required him to do when his vision became impaired. He continued to drive at more than 80 kilometers per hour and, as a result, he hit 35-year-old Kanat Moldabayev, who was pronounced dead at the scene as a result of multiple injuries.

Mr. Zhovtis was given a fair trial at which his friends and colleagues testified to his character and professional integrity as director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. He was credited by the judge for not being drunk, for not exceeding the speed limit, for not leaving the scene of the accident and for calling the ambulance and police.

He was sentenced to four years in prison, which was almost exactly in the midrange of sentences given to the other people who were convicted of killing or seriously hurting pedestrians with their cars. In addition, he was sent to a minimum-security facility instead of a regular detention facility out of respect for his standing in the community and his behavior after the accident.

Nonetheless, groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists insist on saying that Mr. Zhovtis is being held in “a penal colony.” It also asserts without evidence that the presiding judge appeared to have composed the verdict beforehand, giving the false impression that the charges were trumped up.

Such distortions have complicated Kazakhstan’s relations with other governments, including the United States. This year, Kazakhstan chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and is negotiating to hold a first-ever summit of world leaders at its capital, Astana. But at least some officials in the U.S. State Department are resisting that proposal until Mr. Zhovtis is released.

To do so would be a repudiation of what Mr. Zhovtis stands for - the rule of law.

Critics of Kazakhstan have speculated that the verdict against Mr. Zhovtis was politically motivated. That is untrue. Despite the overheated rhetoric and efforts to sensationalize the case, the fact is that a person died because of Mr. Zhovtis’ actions and that fact cannot - and should not - be ignored.

In his role as director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Mr. Zhovtis worked closely with the government to improve national legislation. His constructive criticisms have been valuable to the many efforts still underway to reform the nation’s legislative and legal systems. He is widely respected by his colleagues in the nongovernmental organization community and in the government of Kazakhstan.

Yet the court, independent of government involvement or interference, found Mr. Zhovtis guilty in the death of Mr. Moldabayev. The trial was open and transparent. Many of Mr. Zhovtis’ supporters, including officials from the U.S. Embassy, received unimpeded access to the court’s proceedings.

The government of Kazakhstan deeply regrets the tragic accident and recognizes that its timing could not have been worse. The government would surely be much better off if Mr. Zhovtis were available to lend his expertise to the process of reform, especially this year when Kazakhstan is working so hard to advance the humanitarian mission of the OSCE.

But Mr. Zhovtis broke the law by killing a man with his car and, like anyone else, must pay his debt to society.

Some of Mr. Moldabayev’s relatives insisted that judicial authorities pursue the criminal case against Mr. Zhovtis. We should honor them and the law by not bowing to the misguided belief that Mr. Zhovtis is a political prisoner.

Mr. Idrissov is the Republic of Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States.

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