ALMATY - Prominent rights activist and government critic Yevgeny Zhovtis was among more than 70 prisoners granted an amnesty by a court in eastern Kazakhstan on Wednesday, a court official said.
Zhovtis, 56, who has often criticised the authorities and called for the repeal of laws he saw as unfair, was jailed for four years in September 2009 for manslaughter after a trial that rights groups said was unfair and politically motivated.
He is among 16,000 prison inmates being released under an amnesty marking the 20th anniversary of the Central Asian state's independence from the Soviet Union last Dec. 16.
The opposition has repeatedly accused the government of using trumped-up charges to jail or silence critics and opponents of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has run the country since 1989, but the government denies this.
Zhovtis's wife, Svetlana Vitkovskaya, said the court had told Zhovtis and the other inmates granted an amnesty on Wednesday that they must stay in prison for a further 15 days "before the ruling comes into force".
"This is sheer lawlessness," she told Reuters. "... It further discredits the authorities."
An official at the court in the industrial city of Ust Kamenogorsk in eastern Kazakhstan told Reuters "The case of Zhovtis definitely fell under the amnesty law on occasion of Kazakhstan's Independence Day."
But he added that under Kazakh law, relatives of prisoners' victims had to have 15 days to appeal to the court against the release of inmates granted an amnesty.
Zhovtis was jailed after a car accident in which he hit and killed a pedestrian on a highway. He said he had been blinded by the lights of oncoming cars and could not have avoided the accident.
The United States said his sentence was excessive, pointing to "procedural flaws" during the trial and expressing concern that a later appeal hearing failed to address the deficiencies. The government has denied any political motivation in the case.
TOLERATES LITTLE DISSENT
Nazarbayev, a 71-year-old former steelworker who rose rapidly in the ranks of the Communist party, has put in place bold market reforms and attracted massive foreign investment in his oil-rich Central Asian nation of 16.7 million.
But critics accuse the veteran leader of tolerating little dissent and backtracking on promises of democracy.
Last Thursday Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered and strongly anti-Nazarbayev Alga! party, and newspaper editor Igor Vinyavsky, were arrested in connection with clashes in December in the oil town of Zhanaozen.
Kozlov and Vinyavsky were detained for two months and charged, respectively, with fomenting social hatred, and calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order.
Fierce clashes between sacked oilmen and police in Zhanaozen on Dec. 16 left 14 civilians dead, marring nationwide Independence Day celebrations, and cast a shadow on Kazakhstan's officially cultivated image of stability. Another civilian was killed in clashes in a nearby village the next day.
On Saturday, three opposition leaders were arrested and detained for between 15 and 18 days for organising an unauthorised rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city.
At the rally earlier that day, hundreds of protesters called for democratic change, condemned a recent parliamentary election as fraudulent and demanded the release of jailed colleagues.
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