On September 3, 2009 a Kazakh court found Evgeniy Zhovtis guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to four years in prison for a car accident that killed a young man. On appeal, the court upheld the sentence of the lower court. Zhovtis is the director of the Kazakhstan Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law and a leading human rights advocate in Kazakhstan. He is a spokesperson for various human rights issues in the country including freedom of religion and assembly, and electoral reform.

International observers included individuals from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Human Rights Watch, and leaders of Kazakhstan’s opposition parties witnessed the two-day court hearing. Zhovtis’s lawyer, Vitaliy Voronov, argued that his client was deprived of the due process right to a fair trial and an opportunity to properly present a defense.

The trial was marked by violations of the Kazakh rules of criminal procedure. First, under Kazakh law, anyone suspected of a crime must be informed immediately, whereas Zhovtis was informed 17 days after the fact, giving his lawyers little time to prepare his case. Second, the trial judge either rejected or postponed all defense petitions without ruling on them. For example, the court denied the defense’s motions to introduce expert technical evidence refuting the prosecution’s incomplete motor-vehicle examination, introduce three experts on road traffic accidents and exclude the prosecution’s report which used outdated forensic methods. Lastly, the court did not grant enough time for the defense to prepare a final statement before pronouncing the verdict. Specifically, the defense requested a few days to prepare a final statement, but the judge only granted 40 minutes. The defense was also barred from admitting the victim’s mother’s statement of forgiveness that dismissed all criminal charges against Zhovtis. These actions resulted in a blatant denial of Zhovtis’s opportunity to challenge the evidence brought against him.

In a statement made following the verdict, Zhovtis alluded to the possibility that political motives may have contributed to the denial of a fair hearing. “‘There is no law here,’” he stated. “‘[T]here is no justice here. Where there is no law and no justice, unfortunately there is a political setup.’” In addition to political machinations, his defense counsel charged that the judge’s final verdict was prepared in advance, as he could not have drafted a five-page judgment within 30 minutes of deliberation.

Although the Almaty Province Court is the final court of appeal, Kazakh legislation allows for a supervisory hearing to address possible procedural violations. In light of Kazakhstan’s violations of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and other international human rights instruments, Human Rights Watch has urged Kazakh authorities to re-open the investigation and provide Zhovtis a fair and impartial trial. In addition to the alleged obstruction of justice in this case, Kazakhstan’s recent shortcomings in upholding human rights are especially appalling given that Kazakhstan will chair the OSCE in 2010.