Kazakhstan does not persecute political opponents or attack freedom of expression, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has avowed, fending off awkward questions from journalists during a December 5 visit to Astana by his French counterpart, François Hollande.
"There are no censorship questions here, no political persecutions," Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by Vlast.kz, calling on critics to "abandon stereotypes here and look with new, open eyes."
Nazarbayev was speaking the same day that two high-profile cases which raise questions about political liberties and freedom of speech reached the courts.
In one, the Adam Bol magazine – which was one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan – is fighting closure on the grounds that it allegedly called for war in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict. The case was adjourned until December 22.
The magazine was closed down on November 20 over an interview in which opposition activist Aydos Sadykov pledged to urge citizens of Kazakhstan to take up arms to fight pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The closure was condemned by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic as "drastic and disproportionate," and by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, as the "orchestrated throttling" of an opposition-minded outlet.
In the other case, a legal bid by jailed opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov to have reprimands he unknowingly received in prison overturned was being heard at a session to which his wife and supporters were denied access.
Official reprimands are usually delivered to prisoners who infringe prison regulations, but Kozlov says he knew nothing about his reprimands until he was refused permission to transfer to a lighter detention regime this year. If left standing, they could affect Kozlov's chances of parole. Kozlov is serving time on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011. The European Parliament and human rights groups have repeatedly pointed to his case with concerns about political persecution.
Aliya Turusbekova, Kozlov's wife, said in remarks posted on Facebook that the judge had arrived to hear her husband's case only in the evening of December 5. His family and supporters were denied access to the hearing, after first being sent to the wrong town.
Back in Astana, Nazarbayev was bullish about Kazakhstan's human rights record. "I dare declare that human rights in Kazakhstan are more widely assured than in some European countries, where prohibitive laws are being adopted," he said.
He went on to offer a spirited defense of the democratic record of a country that has never held an election deemed free and fair by credible international observers: "Yes, we have our history, our culture, our identity, and we do not intend to reject that. Respecting the democracy that exists in the world, moving in that direction, we do not want to lose our own identity."