WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), welcomed the release on February 17 of well-known human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis from a prison colony in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, where he had served two and half years of a four-year sentence. At the same time, he also expressed concern about the apparent political nature of the sweeping arrests taking place in the wake of the December 2011 riots in Zhanaozen.
“Like many who admire his human rights work, I am relieved that Mr. Zhovtis has finally been released from prison,” said Chairman Smith. “The judicial proceedings against Mr. Zhovtis were unfairly conducted and appeared to have been politically motivated. This was a poor reflection on the Government of Kazakhstan, particularly as it held the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe at the time of Mr. Zhovtis’s arrest.”
“The Government of Kazakhstan continues its pattern of human rights abuses, as we saw most recently in connection with the December violence in Zhanaozen and the poor conduct of the parliamentary elections in January,” said Chairman Smith. “I urge the government to stop the ongoing arrests and to allow an independent international investigation of the Zhanaozen events.” The Helsinki Commission recently held a hearing on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan; the proceedings can be found here. Mr. Zhovtis has testified before the Commission several times, most recently in May 2009, just months before his arrest.
On December 16, a long-standing oil workers’ strike in the western city of Zhanaozen erupted in violence, leaving at least 16 dead. Human rights activists reported subsequent police abuse, and opposition activists and independent media have been arrested as part of the government’s investigation. The government’s own investigation so far has blamed a few incompetent policemen, greedy local officials, and opposition activists while clearing the country’s political elite and central government of responsibility.