* Rights groups say activist jailed for political reasons
* U.S. joins criticism, reminds Kazakhstan of OSCE scrutiny
(Adds U.S. embassy statement)
By Olga Orininskaya
ALMATY, Sept 4 The United States and international human rights groups on Friday expressed concern about the jailing of a Kazakh rights activist over a road accident and colleagues denounced his trial as politically motivated.
Kazakhstan's human rights record has come under close scrutiny this year because the ex-Soviet nation will take over the rotating chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010.
A Kazakh court on Thursday sentenced human rights campaigner and government critic Yevgeny Zhovtis to four years in prison for violation of traffic regulations following a July accident when he fatally hit a pedestrian on a highway. He was accused of failing to make an emergency stop.
The 54-year-old said he was blinded by the lights of oncoming cars and could not have prevented the accident. There were no allegations that he was intoxicated or speeding.
"In recent days, we have expressed our concerns about this case and urged the Kazakhstani authorities to provide Mr. Zhovtis access to fair legal proceedings, consistent with Kazakhstani law," the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan said in a statement.
"We will continue to make the same request during the appeals process."
Rights groups have called the verdict politically motivated.
"The judge's unwillingness to consider important evidence from Zhovtis' lawyer made it clear that this was really a choreographed political trial," New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) quoted Andrea Berg, its Central Asia researcher, as saying in a statement.
"The verdict is a terrible blow for everyone promoting human rights in Kazakhstan."
Another U.S.-based human rights group, Freedom House, has earlier called the two-day trial in the Central Asian state "a miscarriage of justice".
OSCE ROLE CHALLENGED
"We protest against this obviously unlawful and unfair sentence... and demand an urgent review of this verdict and an immediate release of Yevgeny Zhovtis," a group of human rights campaigners from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia said in a statement.
The Kazakh opposition has on a number of occasions accused the government of using trumped-up charges to jail or silence critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev who has run the country since 1989, a charge the government denies.
"We note that there will inevitably be intense international scrutiny placed on how the appeals process will be conducted because of Mr. Zhovtis' prominence in the international human rights community and as Kazakhstan prepares to assume the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010," the U.S. embassy said.
HRW said that while Kazakhstan "has made some modest human rights improvements in the past several months, the changes fall far short of what is needed to guarantee that key rights are respected."
"We are shocked at how easy it is for the government to violate basic human rights just a few months before it will chair the OSCE," HRW's Berg said.
"Kazakhstan clearly is not ready to take on a role as important as the OSCE chairmanship."
(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Ralph Boulton)