I'm glad Yevgeny Zhovtis was freed early from his four-year jail sentence for involuntary vehicular manslaughter. It was an unjust case from start to finish, and I hope he will be able to resume his important human rights work after recuperating and getting his bearings. He returns from his isolation in a prison colony 1,000 miles from his home to a country that is worse off, human-rights wise.
Ironically, it was Zhovtis himself who recommended that the West give its blessing to the notion of having Kazakhstan as the chair of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); he thought it might put his country into the glare of international scrutiny and bring about human rights reform.
It didn't. Things got worse, with the passage of a worse press law, the jailing of a journalist, harassment of independent media and NGOs, and in the end, a highly compromised NGO parallel conference at the official summit (limited in its numbers and forced to accept Kazakh officials and GONGOs on the speakers' list) -- which produced nothing, and ended in a stand-off.
Since then -- one could argue that Astana's sense of impunity with the chair set the stage -- the human rights situation has dramatically deteriorated, with the shooting of at least 14 striking workers by official admission (and credible reports of possibly as many as 64), and the jailing of journalists and opposition members. I think we're going to see this situation get worse before it gets better and it opens up the question of the extent to which human rights groups can function there -- including Zhovtis and the Kazakhstan Human Rights Bureau he has headed for years. They've weathered many a storm; they will survive. But it will be tough. How can the international community help?
That brings me to the issue of the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan of which Zhovtis was former chair from 1999-2002, and was also a board member of OSI’s Central Eurasia Project. The Kazakhstan Open Society Foundation is now looking for an executive chair, as sadly, the former chair, Anna Alexandra, passed away from cancer at an early age.
INITIAL CAUTIOUS OSF RESPONSE TO ZHOVTIS CASE
At the time Zhovtis was arrested, for various reasons, from what I gather, both the local office and the international overseers in New York decided not to have an OSF presence at the trial. Apparently, there was concern that if the "Soros" brand was too visible and close to this trial, it would actually make things go worse for Zhovtis. At home and abroad, the Soros name is inevitably tied to conspiracy theories by conservatives -- likely the tactic was to keep this kind of thing away from the case.
I couldn't have disagreed more. I thought that in his hour of need, the people who had in part put Zhovtis at risk with this regime by having him on their board should stand visibly by his side, with the highest level they could muster in their operation. There was always the tension of the local office versus international norms -- these local Soros foundations are often forced into compromises with the powers-that-be merely to preserve their presence. In Russia, this discrepancy between local pressures and international expectations eventually led to the closure of the office, as it appears to be doing in Azerbaijan. Soros has tended to pull back in recent years due to a tidal wave of backlash about his alleged involvement in financing "colour revolutions" -- by what's to be ashamed of, really? I'm for challenging this strategy.
While there wasn't a campaign in Kazakhstan, OSF did put out a statement on Zhovtis in New York. It was masterfully drafted, likely with legal as well as political advisory staff, and stayed away from declaring Zhovtis as innocent, or pronouncing his case as trumped-up to silence him on the eve of the Kazakh chairmanship of OSCE, and didn't demand his release.
Thirty years of New York human rights movement saddle-bag balancing and 50 years of European diplomacy went into this remarkable statement:
It is in the spirit of the values and standards to which Zhovtis is devoted, that we wish to convey our hope that Zhovtis will enjoy full rights in accordance with the law of Kazakhstan and international conventions to which Kazakhstan is party. His position as a leading rights defender does not entitle him to have any fault on his part overlooked. Nor should it result in any attribution of fault or harsher treatment than is warranted by the evidence.
Thanks, guys! One wishes, oh, the state of Israel enjoyed such kid-glove treatment from the Soros-funded Ken Roth and Human Rights Watch.
I think that sort of equivocating shouldn't have been in the statement, because the task at hand was human solidarity, not legalities. International human rights doesn't cover everything; and OSF should never have implied that you can get a fair trial in Kazakhstan with its wimpy "hope" for one. There's a fiction we all engage in when we call on these states to abide by their international obligations, but when it comes down to your very colleague on your very organization's board going to jail for a long time, the fiction shouldn't be indulged. The CEP leadership should have attended his trial, made multiple vigorous statements, and put out something less limp than this signed by the Brussels office. They didn't.
The Brussels statement opened with the same curiously elaborate apology to the victim of the accident, which may have been dictated by either the government of Kazakhstan itself, or Kazakhstan foundation leaders who felt this was the best approach to take. Yet it's just plain odd to begin first with condolences to a pedestrian who completely accidently was killed when struck by the car Zhovtis was driving, and then as an afterthought, add condolences to Zhovtis. In a normal country under the rule of law, if you were not DWI and you were not at fault, striking dead a pedestrian would not lead to a jail sentence. That it did in Kazakhstan (and doesn't for everyone as we know) was a function of the regime's desire to pounce on this fortuitous situation to muzzle Zhovtis.
This very strange and stilted statement was possibly designed at someone's advice to "make things go better for Zhovtis" and possibly just a desire by lawyers to limit liability for litigation or association with a situation that would cost their entire presence in Kazakhstan.