Court convicts suspects in firebombing of opposition weekly

New York, March 28, 2003—The Medeu district court in the southern Kazakh city of Almaty convicted two men this week of setting fire to an opposition newspaper’s offices last May.

The court sentenced Meirbek Uristenbekov and Mukhitdin Abdualiyev to three years in prison and ordered them to pay a total of 952,000 tenge (US$6,270) in damages to Muratbek Ketebayev, the newspaper’s publisher, and 46,000 tenge (US$303) in legal fees to the court.

On May 22, 2002, assailants threw Molotov cocktails into the office windows of Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika, which is known for its critical coverage of the Kazakh government and high-level corruption. The fire destroyed much of the office, including the publication’s technical equipment.

Initially, the two suspects and the police claimed that Ketebayev hired the men to set fire to his own newspaper. Ketebayev, however, provided evidence showing that he couldn’t have hired Uristenbekov and Abdualiyev to commit arson. And the two suspects later rescinded their accusations, claiming that the man that hired them simply resembled the newspaper publisher. Law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the identity of Ketebayev’s look-alike.

Although the two suspects were convicted, Ketebayev and Irina Petrushova, Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika’s editor-in-chief and the recipient of CPJ’s 2002 International Press Freedom Award, are dissatisfied with the ruling and plan to appeal the court’s decision. They do not believe that Uristenbekov and Abdualiyev are responsible for the crime.

Petrushova has since changed the name of Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika to Assandi Times following a court order seeking the closure of her newspaper.

The opposition weekly Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika and Petrushova have long been subjected to politically motivated harassment. In March 2002, Petrushova received a funeral wreath from an anonymous sender. Two months later, a few days before the newspaper was firebombed, staff found a decapitated dog’s corpse hanging from an office window with an attached note that read, “There won’t be a next time.” The following day, Petrushova found the dog’s head in the building’s yard.

In July 2002, the Almaty Inter-district Economic Court ordered the liquidation of the firm PR-Consulting, which publishes the newspaper. The court found that PR-Consulting had continued to publish the paper despite an April 10 court ruling that suspended the newspaper for allegedly violating administrative regulations, namely failing to display the registration date and certificate number on the weekly’s pages.