- - Friday, June 29, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — An internationally acclaimed playwright slated for a top German culture award is among those targeted in the latest round of arrests following an oil workers strike in Kazakhstan in December, prompting criticism from German officials.

“He supported the demonstrations and it was absolutely great that he did that,” said German lawmaker Viola von Cramon, referring to Kazakh playwright Bolat Atabayev, who was arrested June 15. “I guess he will be punished for that now.”

Oil workers in the city of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan have been protesting against job cuts and poor working conditions since May last year. As the former-Soviet Central Asian republic celebrated 20 years of independence on Dec. 16, the protests erupted into violence, and at least 14 people were killed when police opened fire.

Mr. Atabayev, 60, who has been vocal in supporting the oil workers, was arrested in Almaty for inciting social unrest, and could face up to 12 years in prison.

Ms. von Cramon said she hopes that criticism of Mr. Atabayev’s arrest would remind Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev of plans to hold an official inquiry into the events in Zhanaozen, which he discussed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in February.

On June 4, after a trial marred by allegations of torture, 13 oil workers and opposition activists were sentenced up to seven years in prison for their involvement in the protests. Five police officers also were convicted in a separate trial, receiving similar sentences for abuse of power.

High-placed criticism

Mr. Atabayev, who co-founded a German language theater in Almaty, was due to travel to Germany in August to receive the Goethe Medal for his contribution to cultural exchange with Germany.

“He has been a crucial figure in linking the cultural scene of Kazakhstan to that of Germany,” said Christoph Muecher, a press spokesman for the Goethe Institute in Munich, which administers the award. “We have been deeply concerned about him, knowing that he is also not in the perfect health.”

Mr. Muecher noted that Mr. Atabayev suffers from diabetes.

German Human Rights Commissioner Markus Loening has called for Mr. Atabayev’s immediate release and for all charges against him to be dropped.

His arrest has drawn attention from the German film and theater community, with Oscar-winning director Volker Schloendorff, who collaborated on film projects with Mr. Atabayev, among those calling for his release.

“For me, it is absolutely unimaginable that Bolat Atabayev did anything besides creative, artistic work,” Mr. Schloendorff said in a letter addressed to the Kazakh authorities. “Considering his personality, he is neither predisposed nor suited for political agitation.”

Human rights activists in Kazakhstan also said they were surprised by Mr. Atabayev’s arrest.

“From a political point of view, it is not at all clear to me why the authorities had to bring a criminal case against him because Atabayev was not a member of radical political forces or supporter of violence,” said Yevgeny Zhovtis, an activist with the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Almaty. “Maybe authorities want to warn the artists, creative intelligentsia, so that they stay out of politics.”

‘Riots or revolution’

A protest was held in front of the Kazakh Embassy in Berlin Wednesday. One of the organizers, German theater director and writer Volker Schmidt worked with Mr. Atabayev in Kazakhstan in 2010, and said his former colleague had staged a play titled “The Avalanche” for the oil workers that dealt with issues of fear and oppression.

“He is a very peaceful man, his interest is in enlightenment and using the arts to wake people up so they care for the country,” Mr. Schmidt said. “He’s not interested in riots or revolution.”

Some analysts said the case highlights the Nazarbayev government’s disregard of Western criticism.

“Arresting a playwright or author set for an international award is a way to show clearly that they don’t care about international intervention or diplomatic pressure,” said Bruno De Cordier, an analyst specializing in Central Asian politics at the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University in Belgium.

Activists agreed.

“I very much hope that Germany and other countries’ artists societies will exert pressure on the Kazakh authorities concerning the case of Atabayev,” said Mr. Zhovtis.

But he added that “any concession to pressure from outside is assessed by our authorities as a sign of weakness. Therefore, it is very difficult to believe that this will give a positive result.”

Ruby Russell reported from Berlin.

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