Kazakhstan's most prominent human rights activist, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, has marked his first year behind bars. Zhovtis, a tireless campaigner who has stood up to the Kazakh authorities for years, was given a four-year prison sentence on September 3, 2009 on charges of vehicular manslaughter he denied, after a trial widely criticized for procedural violations.
To mark the anniversary, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law -- which Zhovtis heads -- issued a stinging statement  pointing to the "bias, political prejudice and political order" that it says is inherent in the case. The authorities have consistently denied any political motivation behind Zhovtis's jailing and insisted they followed the law to the letter.
At the trial and subsequent failed appeals, Zhovtis's defense acknowledged that a pedestrian died while he was at the wheel but contended that the death was unavoidable due to the pedestrian's behavior. The case was pursued despite a clause in Kazakh law that should have allowed Zhovtis to remain free after he reached reconciliation with the victim's family and paid compensation.
Zhovtis's organization suggested in its statement that Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this year -- which some observers had hoped would promote democracy, liberalization and a less restrictive climate for human rights activists -- had brought no changes for the better, either for Zhovtis or for Kazakhstan's political process.
"A year after the trial and sentencing in Yevgeniy Zhovtis's case -- of which nine months were in 2010, the term of Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship -- we are forced to state that nothing has changed for the better in the fate of the convicted rights activist. The country is hurtling all the more toward authoritarianism and the persecution of all dissidents," the statement said.
It also noted that while in prison Zhovtis had received reprimands that jeopardize his chances of early release from the open prison in Oskemen (also known as Ust-Kamenogorsk) in which he is serving his sentence. One of the reprimands was for the serious misdemeanor -- in the eyes of the prison authorities -- of watching a TV report on the World Cup.
Zhovtis has also been reprimanded in a row over his right to work. He was refused permission to take up employment at the Oskemen branch of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, even though the prison is supposed to be open, but declined to do a menial job inside the prison, insisting on his right to work as a lawyer, as he was trained.
The human rights activist has, however, put his training to good use while inside, assisting fellow prisoners with their legal cases. After a year in prison, Zhovtis seems to be down but not out, and there is every sign that he'll continue to be a thorn in the side of the Nazarbayev administration.