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Kazakhstan targets media, opposition as extremists

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — State prosecutors in Kazakhstan said Wednesday that they want a ban on several opposition publications and parties for alleged extremism in a move that is set to further restrict political and media freedoms in the Central Asian nation.
The General Prosecutor's office said in a statement that newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad and satellite television station K+ urged the overthrow of the government and incited unrest.
The push against the opposition follows the conviction in October of unregistered Alga party leader Vladimir Kozlov for allegedly fomenting a riot last year in the western oil town of Zhanaozen.
Alga and its allied People's Front movement are also being targeted by the ban attempt.
The development is set to chill independent political activities in Kazakhstan, an authoritarian former Soviet republic dominated by pro-government forces.
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 grip over the country.
Last year's presidential election, which saw Nazarbayev winning with a Soviet-style 95 percent of the vote, was sharply criticized by international observers, who cited numerous cases of ballot box stuffing, voter intimidation and a lack of transparency.
Prosecutors cited the ruling against Kozlov in explaining why they are seeking the bans. The charges against him related to clashes in mid-December in 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.
"The court found that the members of Alga and the People's Front were distributing leaflets and other printed materials to striking oil workers in Zhanaozen, as well as making speeches that were aimed at inciting social hatred and calling for the violent seizure of power," the prosecutor's statement said.
The British-based Solicitors International Human Rights Group said in a report published Tuesday that the guilty verdict against Kozlov in October was "not justified by either the evidence presented to the court or the reasoning in the final judgment."
The group said it was not unreasonable to infer that the judge in Kozlov's trial came under political pressure in reaching his decision.
Oksana Makushina, deputy editor of Respublika, which reported extensively on the labor dispute in Zhanaozen, said the move had been expected after it was used as evidence in the Kozlov trial.
"We will resist," Makushina said. "They can shut us down under the law, but it will be hard to do so in reality."
A crackdown on government opponents had been widely anticipated after Alga leader Kozlov's failed appeal Monday against his 7 1/2-year jail sentence.
Advocacy group Freedom House this week urged the government not to target the opposition.
"The government of Kazakhstan must refrain from pursuing further crackdowns. Genuine modernization in Kazakhstan can only be achieved through allowing political competition and respect for fundamental rights," said Susan Corke, director for Eurasia programs at Freedom House.
Many observers believe the drive against the opposition is an indirect attack on exiled businessman and bitter government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov, who is widely said to fund opposition parties and media.
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.
A British court earlier this month upheld a 22-month prison sentence imposed on Ablyazov for contempt of court for breaching an asset-freezing order.
Another court ruled later that Ablyazov, who is in hiding, could appeal without turning himself in. Ablyazov's whereabouts are unknown.
Ablyazov denies wrongdoing and says the allegations are politically motivated.

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