WASHINGTON —U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) today called on Kazakhstan’s government to treat imprisoned human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis fairly while his appeal works its way to the Supreme Court.
The comments came the day after Helsinki Commission staff visited Zhovtis for nearly two hours Tuesday at the prison colony in Ust-Kamenogorsk.
“We thank the Kazakhstani authorities for making possible the visit by Commission staff to see Yevgeny Zhovtis, the country’s best known human rights activist” said Chairman Cardin who most recently raised concerns about Zhovtis’ case with Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev in February at a meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
“In his work as a human rights activist, Zhovtis has always tried to work with Kazakhstan’s government to promote positive change,” Cardin said. “We expect the Supreme Court to take up his case and address the procedural violations in his previous trial and appeal.”
Zhovtis is serving a four-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter in connection with a July 2009 traffic accident that killed Kanat Moldabaev. While meeting with Commission staff, Zhovtis described major procedural violations in the investigation of his trial and subsequent appeal. For example, Kazakhstani courts ignored the settlement Zhovtis made with the legal representative of Moldabaev’s family, which under Kazakhstani law should have settled the case.
The Commission also called on Kazakhstani authorities to improve conditions at the prison, where several hundred prisoners share two toilets and overcrowding has made for a poor sleeping situation.
“I am very happy to hear that Yevgeny Zhovtis, a longstanding friend of the Helsinki Commission and an inspiration to human rights activists everywhere, is in good health and his spirits are unbroken,” said Co-Chairman Hastings, who has often discussed the case with Kazakhstani officials. “But it also appears he is being treated in a more restrictive way than all the other prisoners, particularly regarding working conditions.”
While Zhovtis is allowed to communicate with family, friends and others, he is barred from outside work and forced to do menial labor inside the prison while other inmates are free to work outside during the days.
“We are concerned about the fairness with which Zhovtis is being treated and call on the government to provide him the same freedoms afforded other prisoners in the facility. Zhovtis should be allowed to find his own job and leave the facility during the day for work,” Cardin said.
Zhovtis has testified twice before the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Last May, he sat on the same witness panel with Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, Erlan Idrissov.