MOSCOW (AP) — A court in Kazakhstan has sentenced a vocal opposition leader to 7 ½ years in prison for allegedly seeking to overthrow the government, ending a trial that has undermined the Central Asian nation's claims to being an emerging democracy.
A judge in the city of Atyrau ruled that unregistered Alga party leader Vladimir Kozlov incited oil workers to violence in a remote western province as part of a plot hatched together with an exiled businessman and government foe, the politician's wife Aliya Turusbekova said.
Observers have described the trial as politically motivated and designed to stifle robust opposition in the authoritarian ex-Soviet nation.
Kazakhstan, a vast and energy-rich Central Asian nation positioned between Russia and China into which U.S. and other international businesses have invested billions of dollars, is eager to be embraced as a modernizing state. Still, 72-year old President Nursultan Nazarbayev has shown no desire to loosen his two decade-long grip over the country.
The charges relate to clashes in mid-December in the town of Zhanaozen between local people and police that followed a seven-month occupation of the central square by striking oil laborers. At least 14 people died when police opened fire on rioters.
Alga's property is also to be confiscated, effectively leading to the abolition of the authorities' most robust critic.
Speaking in an interview on state television on the eve of the verdict, Nazarbayev described the bloody culmination of the labor dispute in Zhanaozen as the result of "malicious people taking advantage of the situation."
Rights activists say the timing of his remarks underlines a lack of judicial independence in Kazakhstan.
"From Nursultan Nazarbayev's interview it became obvious, in my view, that the sentence had been pre-agreed and that he would be found guilty," rights advocate and lawyer Yevgeny Zhovtis told Radio Azattyk, the Kazakhstan service of Radio Free Europe.
Kozlov and two fellow defendants, who were given suspended sentences for similar offenses, visited and consulted with the workers in Zhanaozen demonstrating in a demand for higher salaries.
For the government, this outreach work constituted an incitement to revolt. Kozlov argues he was performing activism common in any nation that aspires to inoculate itself against social unrest.
Observers have noted that the real target of the trial was likely businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, a self-exiled Nazarbayev foe. Prosecutors described Ablyazov in their indictment against Kozlov as the head of an extremist, criminal conspiracy bent on "seizing power by inciting civil strife and hatred."
Kozlov and Ablyazov have been political allies for more than a decade and consulted regularly over political strategy.
Ablyazov is wanted by Kazakhstan authorities on charges of siphoning off billions of dollars from BTA Bank, which is based in the country's business capital, Almaty.