* Vladimir Kozlov jailed for seven-and-a-half years
* Judge links defendant with billionaire fugitive Ablyazov
* Oil town riots prompted crackdown on Kazakh opposition
(Adds foreign ministry reaction)
By Dmitry Solovyov
AKTAU, Kazakhstan, Oct 8 An outspoken critic of
Kazakhstan's president was jailed for seven-and-a-half years on
Monday for colluding with a fugitive billionaire in a failed
attempt to rally oil workers to bring down the government.
Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unofficial Alga! party, was
found guilty of orchestrating dissent among striking oilmen in
the prelude to riots last December that killed 15 people and
dented Kazakhstan's reputation for stability.
Kozlov denied the charges. In his final pronouncement before
sentencing, he said on Oct. 1 that his case was an "undisguised
attempt" to stifle civic protest and labour rights in the former
In more than two decades as president, Nursultan Nazarbayev,
72, has eschewed democratic freedoms in pursuit of the
oil-fuelled growth and investment that has made Kazakhstan's
$185 billion economy the largest in Central Asia.
Authorities have tried in recent years to balance their
desire to preserve stability and economic growth with efforts to
improve the Kazakh image on the world stage.
The United States has said Kozlov's case would be a test for
the democratic credentials pledged by Kazakhstan when it chaired
the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010.
Kozlov, 52, clenched his fists when the judge read out his
sentence in front of several dozen supporters in a court in
Aktau, a city 2,600 km (1,625 miles) west of the capital Astana.
Aktau is the capital of Mangistau, the western Kazakh region
where employees of state-run oil companies staged a months-long
protest in 2011 after being fired for striking over wages.
On Dec. 16, a riot erupted in the main square of Zhanaozen.
Police opened fire and at least 14 people were killed. Another
person died when rioting spread next day to a nearby village.
Judge Berdybek Myrzabekov said Kozlov had turned a labour
dispute into a politicised strike after travelling the country
to find "weak spots" under orders from Mukhtar Ablyazov, an arch
foe of Nazarbayev and the former head of BTA bank.
Ablyazov left Kazakhstan in 2009 and was granted political
asylum in Britain last year as he awaited fraud charges he says
were politically motivated. His whereabouts are unknown since he
fled London in February after being sentenced there for contempt
Back home, Kazakhstan's marginalised opposition enjoys
little popular support. Despite never having held an election
judged fair by international monitors, Nazarbayev is praised for
presiding over stability relative to neighbouring states.
But authorities have grown more wary of dissent after street
protests in Russia, which shares a language favoured by millions
of its citizens and remains Kazakhstan's biggest trade partner.
In an interview with pro-government Russian television on
Sunday, Nazarbayev said "people with bad intentions" had
exploited a simple labour dispute for their own criminal ends.
"The puppeteers were far away. They weren't even there, but
directed everything that went on," he told Russia's Channel One.
Many of Kozlov's supporters chanted "Shame!" as the
seven-week trial ended. As he was being led away, Kozlov grabbed
a wooden barrier for support and said: "This is not a proper
trial, but persecution. What has just happened here is a crime."
His political associate Mikhail Sizov called the sentence
"outrageous" and said he would fight for Kozlov's release.
Kazakhstan's government rejected opposition claims the case
was politically motivated.
"Court proceedings were conducted in an open manner and
absolutely everybody was able to participate," Foreign Ministry
spokesman Altay Abibullayev said. "Such practices are not
widespread even in many countries with developed democracies."
Kozlov was arrested in January, a week after Kazakhstan held
a parliamentary election in which his Alga! party, long denied
official registration, was not eligible to stand.
The election admitted three parties to parliament for the
first time, a small concession to democracy. But the second- and
third-placed parties are broadly sympathetic to the ruling party
and OSCE vote observers said genuine opposition had been barred.
Several opposition activists and two defence lawyers missed
the sentencing because their flight from Almaty was delayed, a
problem attributed by the airline to a fault with their plane.
Kozlov's two co-defendants, opposition activists Serik
Sapargaly and Akzhanat Aminov, walked free after being handed
suspended sentences. Aminov had pleaded guilty.
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Diana