Questions Remain in Kazakhstani Case

Friday, February 7, 2003
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) acknowledges the report of two Ontario coroners into the death last year of Leila Bayseitova, daughter of Kazakhstani journalist Lira Bayseitova. But questions remain about the death and we call on Kazakhstani and Canadian authorities to help clear them up. CJFE awarded Lira Bayseitova one of two International Press Freedom Awards last year for her courageous journalism in exposing secret Swiss bank accounts of senior Kazakhstani government officials, including the country's President. For her work, she faced threats and harassment. And after publication of the banking story, her daughter, Leila, was arrested on a drug charge and died in police custody. The authorities said she hanged herself although there was - and is - a strong concern that her death may have been linked to her mother's journalism. Chief Ontario Coroner Dr. James Young and Dr. Michael Pollanen, also of the Ontario Coroner's Office, travelled to Kazakhstan in December to investigate Leila's death. This followed Lira's specific request in November that Canada push Kazakhstan to allow an independent exhumation and autopsy of her daughter's remains. The coroners' report says Leila died from injuries consistent with hanging while in police custody following her arrest on drug charges. It also says the 25-year-old woman was not raped or otherwise assaulted while in custody. And it says she had been an habitual heroin user for the 18 months preceding her death. CJFE appreciates that the coroners and the federal Department of Foreign Affairs undertook to get at the truth in this sad case. And we welcome the report's recommendations that Kazakhstani authorities review procedures regarding supervision of inmates in holding cells and develop "a strict protocol for investigation" of such cases. But we are also disappointed that some key questions remain unanswered. Among them: * Lira Bayseitova specifically asked Canada to conduct a timely exhumation and autopsy to get independent corroboration of the cause of death. The coroners said in their report that exhumation "was not undertaken" because "there are limits to how much additional information an exhumation might yield." But they also said that if the family and the government ask for an exhumation, they would be "willing to consider our involvement in such an examination." Lira has already requested the procedure; why is it necessary to also obtain the agreement of authorities whose role in the tragedy remains unclear? Dr. Young told CJFE this week that "exhumation was somewhat contentious" and "with regards to the major things we could do ... exhumation was well down that list." He added that getting official co-operation for interviews, access to police and medical reports and examination of other evidence was "key" to his investigation. * The investigators said they relied on interviews with police, doctors and other officials, and they reviewed official documents. But Kazakhstan's previous record on human-rights issues suggests such documents might not be as reliable as their Canadian equivalents. Asked about that, Dr. Young said he was aware "people might be less than truthful with us" so he "looked for consistency" in answers from his various interlocutors and was satisfied he got it. * The report says the coroners examined slides made during the official autopsy. Asked how he could be certain the slides were from Leila Bayseitova, Dr. Young replied that it is impossible to be certain "short of DNA tests." * The report concludes from a review of documents and interviews with officials that Leila's injuries are consistent with a hanging. The report does not, however, address the possibility that someone other than Leila was involved in the act -- or that she was forced into it. Dr. Young said this week that an examination of photos of the body showed "no signs of a struggle." CJFE calls on Canadian and Kazakhstani authorities to clear up all outstanding doubts and questions in this case. We once again extend our condolences to Lira Bayseitova and we confirm our full support for her brave efforts on behalf of the truth and an independent media in Kazakhstan. CJFE is an association of more than 400 journalists, editors, publishers, producers, students and others who work to promote and defend free expression and press freedom in Canada and around the world. For more information, contact Joel Ruimy at (416) 515-9622 e-mail: cjfe@cjfe.org

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