A private foundation set up by billionaire financier George Soros on Tuesday urged Kazakhstan to free a jailed human rights defender, saying he was imprisoned in "an unfair trial".
The ex-Soviet nation is under scrutiny from the West this year after it assumed the 2010 rotating chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on promises to bring more democracy.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, a prominent government critic and civil rights lawyer, was jailed for four years over a road accident late last year in a case his supporters said was politically motivated and part of the state campaign to silence dissent.
The Open Society Institute urged the Kazakh government to free Zhovtis and open a fresh investigation into the case.
"Zhovtis is one of Kazakhstan's most dedicated human rights lawyers, and we are deeply disturbed that he has been imprisoned after an unfair trial," James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said in a statement.
"With Kazakhstan chairing the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe this year, it needs to show that it respects basic standards of law and justice."
The government has denied any political motivation behind the case and said the trial had been in line with the law.
Humanitarian groups have long accused Kazakhstan of failing to fix its patchy rights record.
A vast nation stretching between China, Russia and the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by Western observers, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power for 20 years, tolerates little opposition to his rule.
In hearings held last September, Zhovtis, who chaired Soros Foundation Kazakhstan between 1999 and 2002, was sentenced to four years for fatally hitting a pedestrian on a highway outside the financial capital Almaty.
Zhovtis says he could not have prevented the accident. There were no allegations that he was drunk or speeding.
Also last year, a court accused the opposition Respublika newspaper of slander and several of its print runs were seized. Another opposition newspaper, Taszhargan, was effectively closed after a court ruling that found it guilty of slander.
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Jon Hemming) - Reuters