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Swiss probe leads to death in Kazakhstan

In September 2000, Baisetova lost an eye after she was attacked by unidentified assailants. www.tsr.ch

An interview with a former Geneva prosecutor has driven a Kazakh journalist into hiding and led to her daughter's death, press freedom activists claim.

This content was published on July 10, 2002 - 20:07

Reporters Without Borders, the non-governmental organisation that fights for the freedom of the press, is sending a representative to Kazakhstan on Friday to investigate the case of Lira Baisetova, whom it says has been persecuted for reporting about a Swiss investigation into alleged corruption by the former Soviet republic's leaders.

Baisetova has gone into hiding following the death in custody of her daughter and an arson attack on the offices of the newspaper that published her report.

Kazakh leaders are accused of accepting kickbacks from petrol companies in return for lucrative contracts in the oil-rich state.

Last September, Swiss judicial authorities passed on to their US counterparts the results of an inquiry carried out by Geneva prosecutors, which suggested that such a money-laundering network did indeed exist.

Intimidation

Baisetova has long been a thorn in the side of the Kazakh authorities, and in return has become a target for intimidation. In September 2000, she lost an eye after being beaten up by unidentified thugs. Since then, she has received numerous threats.

In late May, she published an article in the opposition newspaper "SolDat" based on an interview she had conducted with the former Geneva Prosecutor, Bernard Bertossa.

In it, Bertossa confirmed that Switzerland had frozen the bank accounts of not only the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, but also two former prime ministers.

Bertossa told her that it was difficult to say whether the money in these accounts was of criminal origin, given the lack of cooperation from the Kazakh judicial authorities.

"Bertossa merely confirmed what Lira and most people in Kazakhstan already knew," says Laurence Deonna, president of the Swiss branch of Reporters Without Borders, and a friend of Baisetova.

A day after the article was published, Baisetova's 25-year-old daughter, Leïla, went missing and the newspaper's offices were burned down. Three weeks later, the journalist was told that Leïla had been arrested for drugs possession, and that she had been admitted to hospital.

On June 21, she was informed that her daughter had died. Baisetova says she has photographic evidence that the corpse showed signs of torture.

In hiding

"Of course we have no proof that her article was linked to the fire at the newspaper offices or the murder of her daughter. But to anyone with any common sense it is obvious," Deonna told swissinfo.

Baisetova is now in hiding with her grandson in a remote village on the Kazakh steppes. Reporters Without Borders has told the Kazakh government that it holds it responsible for anything that happens to the editor.

"She's lonely and worried about her grandson. But she's very much looking forward to being visited in the coming days by someone from Reporters Without Frontiers," Deonna says.

The Swiss branch of the organisation has a particular interest in the case, since it invited Baisetova to speak at the Geneva Book Fair in May and arranged the interview with Bertossa.

Newspapers closed down

Baisetova is far from being the only Kazakh opposition journalist to suffer repression at the hands of the government.

Since the beginning of this year, several newspapers have been closed down and a private television station has been forced off the air.

The American organisation, Human Rights Watch, says the independent print and broadcast media in Kazakhstan "face intense government repression", while the Swiss government has voiced its concern to Almaty about the lack of press freedom.

Last week, a Kazakh court handed down a suspended sentence to another leading journalist, Irina Petrushova, editor-in-chief of the business weekly Respublika, a newspaper that has also aired criticisms of Nazarbayev.

Like Baisetova, Petrushova - condemned for "illegal entrepreneurial activity" - has been the victim of intimidation. She has been sent a funeral wreath and a decapitated dog, and her office was firebombed.

by Roy Probert

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