The Peace Corps “Sharp Incident” in Kazakhstan

Part 2: A Peace Corps Volunteer is Arrested

Peace Corps Volunteer Tony Sharp

Peace Corps Online

Caption: Peace Corps Volunteer Tony Sharp on a camping trip outside Ridder, Kazakhstan in October 2007.

Peace Corps Volunteer Anthony Kavanaugh Sharp entered pre-service training in Talghar, Kazakhstan on August 22, 2006, received 10 weeks of intensive technical, cross-cultural, safety and security, and language training, and was sworn-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Kaz 18 group on November 11, 2006.

Sharp was assigned to the isolated East Kazakhstan Oblast town of Ridder, in the mountains north of Oskemen (Ust Kamenogorsk) in northeastern Kazakhstan, where he worked with the Non-governmental Organization named Ak-Kem-Ridder, an ecological-interest NGO specializing in ecological preservation, education and tourism, forest sustainability and restoration of forests. Sharp worked on projects such as: Save Your Forest (a tree planning and ecological seminar program) Global Environmental Fund (Collective Video); Clean the Ulba River (six kilometer river bank clean-up project); Idea Wild (compass reading seminars); Grey Meadow (eco-tourism base camp); HIV/AIDS education; Tri-lingual Ridder Museum Display; Cabin construction and tee pee building; and the Tree farming Cross-cultural club English conversation club.

Sharp was scheduled to complete his Peace Corps service and depart Kazakhstan on December 2, 2008.

Sharp's Arrest

On November 26, 2008, just days before the end of his Peace Corps tour, police took Sharp into custody at about 2 am after they spotted him climbing a fence to leave a restricted zinc mining complex near Ridder. Sharp was carrying a bag which contained what police described as industrial explosives commonly used in mining. In a subsequent search of Sharp's residence, police took several maps, his cell phone, camera, computer, a number of CD-ROMs and some hiking/outdoor gear. In the search of Sharp's apartment, authorities said they found a "top secret map, proving that Sharp is an American spy."

Police questioned Sharp throughout most of Thanksgiving day, but released him that evening without charges. Police took Sharp's passport and told him he could not leave Kazakhstan until the investigation, which could take up to two months, was complete. Police said they would likely charge Sharp under section 25.1 of the Kazakhstani legal code, illegal possession of firearms (explosives) and that Sharp, if charged and convicted, could face a maximum of five years in prison.

Sharp's Account of What Happened

According to Sharp, he went to the mining complex at the suggestion of his Kazakhstani counterpart and supervisor, Aleksei Aleksandrovich Grigorenko, from the NGO where he was assigned to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer and with Mikhail Vasilivich Petin, a friend of his supervisor's who was familiar with the mine. According to Sharp, he had long been curious about the mine and had quickly agreed when his supervisor suggested a visit. While they were at the mine, Sharp says his supervisor picked up several items and placed them in a bag the supervisor was carrying.

As the three were about to leave the restricted area, Grigorenko asked Sharp to hold his bag while he climbed the fence. As the three departed the restricted area after midnight on November 27, mine security and local Ministry of Interior (MVD) police detained Sharp and claimed to find industrial explosives in "his" bag. Sharp says he did not know what the items were and that he only took the bag as he was getting ready to climb the fence to leave the mine. Police did not apprehend Sharp's supervisor or the third man.

Sharp says that the map authorities found during a search of his apartment was a Soviet map from the 1960s that Sharp had bought in the bazaar as a souvenir.

US Consular Officer Comes to Ridder to Visit Sharp

Peace Corps Online

Caption: Ridder, Kazakhstan.

On December 3, 2008, a Consular Officer visited Sharp in Ridder. At the time of the Consular Officer's visit, an additional PCV was in Ridder to provide moral support to Sharp. The Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer had also visited Ridder and Peace Corps arranged for legal representation. Sharp had no health issues and did not make any specific requests of the Embassy. The Consular Officer was in regular contact with Sharp's family in Oregon.

The Consular Officer also met with the Ridder police investigator assigned to Sharp's case, the senior investigator, the Deputy Chief of Police and the Chief of Police. They said the case file and all evidence, including the items taken from Sharp's residence, had been sent to the Oskemen Ministry of Internal Affairs regional office for examination. They were awaiting instructions from their superiors in Oskemen before taking further steps, but all the police officials said they expected Sharp would be charged. The investigators both said they believed Sharp had been used by others, but that they did not know by whom or why, and that they did not think that Sharp's actions were motivated by criminal intent. The Chief of Police also mentioned that some of the maps found in Sharp's residence could possibly be considered military secrets although Sharp said they were Soviet-era topographical maps of the region purchased locally soon after he arrived.

On December 4, 2008, the American Charge and Consular Officer met with Talgat Kaliyev, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Americas Desk, and his consular assistant regarding the case. Kaliyev was aware of the details of the case and said he believed it to be a serious matter. He pointed out that Sharp was in a restricted area in the middle of the night and that markings on the maps found in his residence were of interest. Kaliyev said that he was concerned that Sharp's explanation of his actions did not reflect his true intentions but promised, however, to help resolve the matter as expeditiously as possible.

Kaliyev raised the cases of Asel Abdygapparova, currently serving a life sentence in Texas for capital murder, and Talapker Imanbayev. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that this was not a "tit for tat" but that they simply wanted to see "what the possibility was" of Abdygapparova serving the remainder of her sentence in Kazakhstan and returning Imanbayev to serve time for a previous Kazakhstani fraud conviction.

Sharp Charged with Illegal Possession of Firearms (Explosives)

On December 31, 2008 the Ministry of Interior investigator recommended Sharp be charged with violating Article 251, Part 1, of the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan, for illegal possession of firearms (explosives), which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Sharp was the only one of the three men in the mine who was apprehended and although Sharp had video and photos to prove otherwise, the investigators refused to look at them. According to Sharp, the police received a tip-off as early as 20:00 hours that night that there would be trespassers at the mine, the bag he was caught with that allegedly contained explosives was not his, and the driver of the taxi they used to reach the mine gave false testimony. Further, the investigators refused to check records of Grigorenko's cell-phone calls that night.

The US Embassy Works to Secure Sharp's Release

The US Ambassador Intervenes

Peace Corps Online

Caption: US Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland.

One of the most important figures in negotiating the successful outcome to the Sharp affair was US Ambassador Richard Hoagland. Hoagland previously served as US Ambassador to Tajikistan 2003-2006, and recently served as Charge d'affaires to Turkmenistan July 2007-July 2008. Hoagland felt a great affinity for the Peace Corps. In an interview with the Peace Corps Newsletter, "Vesti" in 2009, Hoagland disclosed that he was a volunteer English teacher in an isolated village in Congo Kinshasa from 1974 to 1976. Although Hoagland was not in the Peace Corps but in another volunteer organization he said he greatly values that experience and has absolutely indelible memories of that time. "Also, my sister was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines in the late 1970s and managed an agricultural project to develop a mango plantation for a remote village, for small-scale economic development," said Hoagland. "She always tells me the most important job she ever had was on the isolated island of Bohol in the Philippines, setting up a mango plantation as an economic development project – which the corrupt mayor expropriated, once it became successful. Nu I shto – such is life! Peace Corps is one of the great U.S. people-to-people achievements of the 20th century, now continuing into the 21st century. As the advertisement says, "It's the most difficult job you'll ever love!" And it's one of the most important things we as a nation do all over the world."

On December 12, 2008 US Ambassador Hoagland met with President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Foreign Policy Adviser Yerzhan Kazykhanov. Kazykhanov said he was unaware that a Peace Corps Volunteer in the town of Ridder was under investigation for trespassing at a restricted zinc mine and allegedly carrying industrial explosives. Ambassador Hoagland summarized the case for Kazykhanov and emphasized that he expected every U.S. citizen in Kazakhstan to obey the laws of the country; however, if the young man in question was guilty of anything it was of naivete and bad judgment. The Ambassador emphasized we fully agree with the Foreign Ministry that we want this handled quietly and kept out of the media but the young man's parents are increasingly frustrated and have said they might contact U.S. journalists to publicize this case to try to speed its resolution. The Ambassador pressed that the investigation be completed quickly and that the young man be deported as soon as possible. Kazykhanov said he fully agreed that we do not want this incident to become a bilateral irritant. He said he would "talk around" to see what could be done to expedite the case and conclude it satisfactorily, but added he could make no promises at this point.

On December 29, 2008 Ambassador Hoagland raised the Sharp case with Kazakhstan's self-described Number Two and President Nazarbayev's confidante, State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev, pointed out the inconsistencies in the case and said the US strongly suspected a set-up by those who would seek to harm the image of the Peace Corps and the bilateral relationship between the US and Kazakhstan. Saudabayev said he was unaware of the case but would look into it.

On December 31, 2008 Hoagland met again with State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev. Saudabayev credibly responded he was unaware of the case of Peace Corps Volunteer Anthony Sharp and asked, "Is this the KNB (Committe for National Security, the pro-Moscow ex-KGB intelligence service) or MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs)?" The Ambassador responded, "MVD is investigating, but we strongly suspect the KNB is at the root of this. We consider the case, based on concrete evidence, a clear provocation and totally incompatible with our positive relationship. We are outraged, but we want this to continue to be kept quiet, out of the media. I insist to all American citizens in Kazakhstan that they must follow Kazakhstan's laws. In this case, as soon as the investigation is concluded, no matter the outcome, we want you to deport Sharp — get this off the bilateral agenda. This is an irritant you do not want for the new U.S. administration." Saudabayev picked up his cell phone, dialed a number, but received no answer. He said, "We'll take care of this."

The Appearance of Political Provocation

On January 6, 2009 the Ambassador met with Saudabayev's Chief of Staff Roman Vassilenko and went through the case in detail, emphasizing the suspicion that this was a provocation designed to harm the bilateral relationship. On January 9, the Ambassador presented a non-paper to Saudabayev that concluded with the following paragraphs:

"Should the case go to court, it is likely to become public. Neither Kazakhstan nor the United States wants that kind of publicity — especially at the beginning of the new administration of U.S. President Barak Obama, who has already made a welcome gesture (a post-election phone call) to President Nazarbayev of his intention to build further our bilateral relationship."

"I am convinced this case is a political provocation specifically designed to harm U.S.-Kazakhstani relations — although I emphasize I do not believe the highest level of the government of Kazakhstan was aware of the provocation."

"I ask that the government of Kazakhstan intevene at the highest levels to dismiss this case, declare Sharp persona non grata, and deport him immediately. I am certain the leadership of Kazakhstan wants this unpleasant situation concluded before the inauguration of President Obama on January 20."

Saudabayev stepped into his private office with Vassilenko to read the paper. He then had Vassilenko tell the Ambassador, "The case is 'more complicated' than he first thought, and he can do nothing."

According a US Embassy Cable written on January 12, 2009, "Assuming Sharp is telling us the truth, and we have no reason to doubt him, we strongly suspect this case is indeed a political provocation: Sharp went to the restricted zinc mine at Grigorenko's instigation; Grigorgenko handed Sharp a bag to hold as they were about the exit the mine premises; law-enforcement authorities allegedly received a tip-off call earlier in the evening and were waiting for them; the investigators have refused to examine all evidence. When an Embassy Consuar Officer met with local law-enforcement officials in Ridder on December 3, they told him they believed Sharpe "had been used by others" and they did not think he acted with criminal intent. Law-enforcement officials planting firearms/explosives/drugs on an intended victim is a classic Soviet-style maneuver in this part of the world."

"Why would the government do this? We know from their many interventions during the past months that the government, and specifically Committee for National Security (KNB) Chairman Amangeldy Shabdarbayev, remains disappointed at best and deeply annoyed that the United States refuses to assist Kazakhstan with what it considers its most urgent and high-profile case, the extradition from Europe of Nazarbayev's former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev. Further, we know that Russia's intent is to limit U.S. influence and presence in Central Asia, and Kazakhstan's KNB is extremely close to Russian intelligence agencies. Peace Corps would be an extremely low-hanging fruit."

Sharp's Apartment Attacked

At about 04:00 hours on January 11, 2009 someone threw a piece of metal through a window of the apartment where Sharp was living. He was not injured and no other windows in the apartment building were broken. Later in the day Sharp left his apartment and moved back in with his original host family. Peace Corps Country Director Sasser instructed Sharp to report the incident to the police and advised him to take extra precautions, like not walking around the town alone at night.

Kazakhstan Proposes a Deal on the Sharp Case

After State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev declined to intervene in the criminal case involving Sharp, the US Ambassador raised the matter with Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor (and former Deputy Foreign Minister) Kairat Sarybay and on January 15, the Ambassador provided Sarybay with the same non-paper on the case that he had given to Saudabayev. Sarybay phoned the Ambassador on January 20 and informed him that he had tasked resolving the issue to Ministry of Foreign Affairs Americas Department Director Talgat Kaliyev.

On January 21, 2009, Kaliyev called in the Political-Economic Chief from the US Embassy and explained that he had spoken with "many people" involved with the case and had stressed to them the potential "political complications" for the bilateral relationship adding that unfortunately, it was not simply possible to make the case disappear, given that Sharp was allegedly caught with explosives and that "classified maps" were found in his apartment. That said, there was a recognition that Sharp had no "evil intentions."

Kaliyev made a proposal to resolve the situation. This would entail a trial — a perfunctory one — in a closed court, without any media or publicity. Sharp would be found guilty, given a suspended sentence, and immediately deported from the country. Kaliyev said this proposal would be acceptable to all the relevant parties among the authorities.

The US Political-Economic Chief promised that the US would review the proposal and get back to Kaliyev as soon as possible and stressed that the US believed the case against Sharp was a clear provocation and are concerned that it might have originated from Astana, and that the Committee for National Security (KNB) could be involved. Kaliyev responded dismissively. The KNB is, of course, well aware of the case, since it involves a foreigner, but "they are not happy with it," Kaliyev maintained.

Kaliyev told the US Political-Economic Chief that it was important that Peace Corps volunteers behave appropriately and not get themselves in trouble and requested information about the legal basis for the Peace Corps program in Kazakhstan, including whether the program had a formal bilateral agreement with the government. The US Political-Economic Chief said he would obtain this information from the Peace Corps.

US Responds to the Proposal

Peace Corps Online

Caption: The US Embassy in Kazakhstan.

On January 23, 2009 the US Political-Economic Chief, Peace Corps Country Director, and Consular Chief met together with Kaliyev who was accompanied by Tauboldy Umbetbayev from the Ministry of Foreign Affair's Consular Department. Kaliyev reiterated his proposal for resolving the Sharp case. He made it clear that he had, in fact, spoken directly with the judge overseeing the case. According to Kaliyev, the judge cannot simply release Sharp, because he was caught with dynamite in a bag, and items found in his apartment "do not conform to his legal status in the country." Nevertheless, the Kazakhstani side is ready to close its eyes to all of this in the spirit of our good bilateral relationship and the fact that Sharp did not have any evil intentions. Kaliyev insisted that we should not worry — Sharp will not spend any time in jail. He said he had briefed Foreign Minister Tazhin, who agreed with the proposal and that Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Sarybay was also in the loop.

Kaliyev insisted that this proposal is the best option for Sharp to be free to leave the country. If Sharp wants to, he is welcome to appeal the guilty verdict from the safety of the United States. Kaliyev said that a US consular officer could be present at a closed trial, and said he would check to confirm that Sharp's lawyers could be there too. As Kaliyev envisions it, this would be a very quick affair. Perhaps the judge would just read out the charges, immediately hand down a guilty verdict, and suspend the sentence. Kaliyev refused to speculate on the outcome if the proposal is declined and the case goes to a public trial. The Pol-Econ Chief, Consular Chief, and Peace Corp Director made clear to Kaliyev that the final decision about whether to accept the proposal would be Sharp's to make, in consultation with his lawyers.

The US Consular chief and Peace Corps Director told Kaliyev that they had spoken with Sharp's attorneys and understood that it is possible in the Kazakhstani legal system to plead guilty to a lesser charge. Sharp might be willing to plead guilty to trespassing, a crime which carries a maximum penalty of 15 days in jail, if the others charges, including the explosives charge, are dropped. Kaliyev said that there is only so far he can go in interfering in the legal process, but promised to look into the possibility and get back to us with an answer about this alterative by January 27.

The Peace Corps Director reminded Kaliyev that in his January 21 meeting with the US Pol-Econ Chief, he had asked about the legal status of the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. He explained that the Peace Corps has an overall bilateral agreement with the government, and three separate Memoransum of Understanding's under it, with the Ministries of Education and Science, Information and Culture, and Trade and Industry. Kaliyev indicated that there are "some in the government" who want to know how long the agreement is valid for, and how Kazakhstan can terminate it and admitted that in this regard, Sharp's conviction on explosives charges would be a problem for the Peace Corps program in Kazakhstan. However, Kaliyev stressed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supports the Peace Corps — "we believe your people are doing a great job" — and said that there is no reason to be worried about the future of the Peace Corps "for now."

Sharp Prepares for Trial

Peace Corps hired new attorneys for Sharp through the Almaty office of Chadbourne and Parke and they began working on the case on January 22. The attorneys believed that the case was very weak and were preparing a vigorous defense. Court proceedings were, at that time, scheduled to begin on January 28.

Peace Corps Director and Consular Chief were to travel to Ridder on January 26 together with Sharp's lawyers and they would inform Sharp and the lawyers about the government's proposal, as well as the discussion with Kaliyev about a guilty plea to trespassing. "Sharp will need to make his own decision about the government's proposal, in consultation with the lawyers," reads a US diplomatic cable. "That said, at this juncture, it is clear that the government will not simply make this case go away by deporting Sharp without any trial. If the case goes to trial in an open court, the attendant publicity may make it very unlikely for Sharp to be acquitted or to be convicted and given a suspended sentence. In addition, should Sharp's lawyers be successful in poking holes in the case, the judge might send it back for reinvestigation, causing a delay that could last for months. We hope to hear back from Kaliyev on January 27 about the alternative of a guilty plea to trespassing. Sharp spoke with Peace Corps Director on January 23 following the meeting with Kaliyev and said that the police were in the process of again searching his office and the office of Ak-Em Ridder, the local organization he had previously worked for as a volunteer."

Sharp Accepts the Proposal to Resolve the Criminal Case

The US Consular Chief and Peace Corps Country Director traveled to Ridder on January 26, together with the newly-hired lawyers for Sharp and briefed Sharp and the lawyers about the proposal made by Ministry of Foreign Affairs Americas Department head Talgat Kaliyev for resolving Sharp's criminal case — specifically, that after a brief closed trial, Sharp would be found guilty, given a suspended sentence, and immediately deported from the country. Consular Chief and Peace Corps Country Director also told Sharp about the alternative the Embassy proposed to Kaliyev — i.e., that Sharp would consider pleading guilty to a lesser charge of trespassing, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 days in jail, if all the other charges, including the explosives charge, were dropped.

Sharp's legal team — which included a corporate lawyer from Chadbourne and Parke overseeing the case, a criminal defense attorney, and a former judge from Ust-Kamenogorsk — explained to Consular Chief and Peace Corps Director that they believe the case against Sharp is weak, and that in a fair, open trial, they would prevail in getting the charges reduced to administrative ones. Sharp's initial reaction was that he preferred the Embassy's plea-bargain alternative over Kaliyev's proposal. Sharp also reported that police from Ust-Kamenogorsk appeared to be investigating a new case against him, connected to "secret" Soviet topographical maps from the 1960s which were found in his apartment.

Pol-Econ Chief met on January 27 with Kaliyev, who on this occasion declined to directly address the Embassy's alternative proposal. Instead, he insisted that Sharp should accept his own proposal, promising that there would be nothing to worry about and that everything would be finished within a week or so. Kaliyev, however, left open the possibility that in the end, the judge might not convict Sharp on all the criminal charges. He also made clear that he had directly discussed the case with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and Procurator General's Office. He assured Pol-Econ Chief not to be concerned about the new investigation against Sharp: "That's just part of the game."

Pol-Econ Chief relayed the gist of the Kaliyev meeting to Consular Chief, who informed Sharp. On the basis of Kaliyev's reassurances, Sharp agreed to accept Kaliyev's proposal. Pol-Econ Chief immediately informed Kaliyev and asked him to relay the acceptance to all the other relevant parties among the authorities.

Click on this link to read Part 1 of this series.

Tomorrow, Part 3 - A Peace Corps Volunteer Goes on Trial.