The Peace Corps “Sharp Incident” in Kazakhstan

Part 3: A Peace Corps Volunteer Goes on Trial

Peace Corps Online

On February 26, 2009, the trial of Peace Corps Volunteer Anthony Sharp was completed in Ridder and the judge handed down his verdict. Sharp was sentenced to two years in prison on the explosives charges. After sentencing Sharp was taken away in handcuffs for prison in-processing.

Sharp's Trial

Court proceedings in Sharp's case began in Ridder on January 28, 2009. Somewhat surprisingly, the initial proceedings were not closed to the public. The Consular Chief and Peace Corps Country Director attended, along with Sharp and his lawyers. After just 30 minutes, the proceedings were adjourned until January 30. Sharp's lawyers believed the proceedings might continue into the week of February 2, but should not go on any longer than that and they planned on putting into the record all their evidence to counter the procurator's case, but would not file motions that might delay an end to the proceedings. Consular Chief reported from Ridder that he was relatively comfortable with the current course of events and that he and the Peace Corps Country Director would remain in Ridder to continue attending court sessions.

Sharp was moved from his residence to the hotel where the Consular Chief, Peace Corps Country Director, and the lawyers were staying. This step was taken after police knocked on the door of Sharp's residence very late in the evening on January 27. "Sharp will henceforth be accompanied at all times by a lawyer or US Embassy representative, to ensure that there are no opportunities for further provocations against him."

The Verdict

On February 26, 2009, the trial of Peace Corp Volunteer Anthony Sharp was completed in Ridder and the judge handed down his verdict. Sharp was sentenced to two years in prison on the explosives charges. After sentencing Sharp was taken away in handcuffs for prison in-processing.

US Ambassador Meets with Kazakhstani Officials

That same day Ambassador Hoagland met in his office with Presidential Advisor Yermukhamet Yertysbayev and explained the situation to Yertsybayev, who offered to bring it to the attention of other officials in the Presidential Administration. Following the meeting, the US embassy drafted a non-paper, translated it into Russian, and sent it to Yertysbayev. The non-paper explained that (1) we consider the case against Sharp to be a political provocation; (2) the verdict violated our understanding with the Kazakhstani government that Sharp would be given a suspended sentence and deported; (3) we would try to keep the verdict out of the U.S. media, but once it hit the press, the news would cause serious damage to the bilateral relationship; and (4) we expected the Kazakhstani government to take immediate steps to rectify the situation and deport Sharp.

The embassy phoned Talgat Kaliyev, who until recently was head of the Ministry of Foreign Relations Americas Department, and who had been tasked by Sarybay to handle the Sharp case. Kaliyev had reassured the US repeatedly over the past several weeks that everything was fine, and that Sharp would be given a suspended sentence and deported. Kaliyev was surprised to learn of the verdict.

At the same time, the Ambassador tried to call Sarybay, whose staff said he was unavailable to take the Ambassador's call. The Ambassador then called State Secretary Saudabayev's Chief of Staff, Roman Vassilenko, relayed the key points from the non-paper, and asked him to inform Saudabayev.

The Ambassador subsequently managed to reach Foreign Minister Tazhin, who was suffering from a bad cold, and relayed to him all the details. He asked Tazhin to call Sarybay immediately, which Tazhin agreed to do. Tazhin also promised to "gather the right people" the following morning and get back to the Ambassador.

Tazhin kept to his word, and called in the Ambassador early afternoon February 27. He told the Ambassador that Sharp would be released from prison as early as that day. He promised the government would follow through on its original commitment — that Sharp receive a suspended sentence and be deported — within 30 days, so long as we keep the case out the media. He explained that everything would be fixed through the judicial appeals process, and assured the Ambassador that the Supreme Court was already on board.

During a one-on-one conversation, Tazhin explained to the Ambassador that the hardest thing he had had to do in his intergovernmental meeting earlier that day was to push back against the Ministry of Internal Affairs and "other bodies" — meaning the Committee for National Security (KNB) — not on the explosives charges against Sharp, but rather regarding the fact that during a search of Sharp's apartment after his initial detention, the authorities had found a "top secret map, proving that Sharp is an American spy." The Ambassador told Tazhin, simply for his own information, that the map was a Soviet map from the 1960s that Sharp had bought in the bazaar as a souvenir. In a follow-on conversation, Talgat Kaliyev said the lesson he had learned was "you can't trust those guys (i.e., KNB) to keep their word." The Ambassador subsequently contacted Roman Vassilenko, who assured him that State Secretary Saudabayev had been involved with the case the previous evening and had briefed President Nazarabayev.

Sharp Released from Jail but Confined to Ridder

Talgat Kaliyev then worked to get Sharp out of jail, which, according to Kaliyev, included his phoning Ridder City Court Chairman Bulat Zagiyev. Per Kaliyev's instructions, the Ambassador wrote a letter to Zagiyev requesting that Sharp be released into the embassy's custody, and be allowed to travel to Astana for a medical evaluation. The US embassy faxed the letter to Ridder and several hours later, a court hearing was held to review the request, with Sharp's lawyers and the prosecutors in attendance.

The court ordered Sharp released from jail, but denied the request to allow him to travel in Astana, and instead insisted that he move back into his former apartment in Ridder. Because Sharp's landlord is not allowing him to return to the apartment, Sharp's lawyers have filed a motion with the court requesting that he be allowed to stay in the Ridder hotel where he has been residing for the past several weeks. On March 2, Sharp's lawyers appealed the denial of the request to allow Sharp to travel to Astana. Talgat Kaliyev indicated to embassy members that they should not press this latter issue too hard.

The US Ambassador was in contact with Sharp and both of his parents during February 28 and March 1. He assured them that though he could not provide all the sensitive details, the government had promised to satisfactorily resolve Sharp's case within a month. Sharp and his parents agreed with the necessity of keeping the case out of the media.

Foreign Minister Recommends a Meeting with the President

Foreign Minister Tazhin called in the US Ambassador on March 2, and reaffirmed that everything remained on track in resolving the Sharp case. He emphasized several times how "difficult and irritating" his February 27 intra-governmental meeting had been, and recommended the Ambassador request a meeting with President Nazarbayev to discuss the issue. Tazhin explained, "I have my views based on broader foreign relations and the bilateral relationship, but 'others' have other views" — thus making it clear that Nazarbayev would be the ultimate arbiter. He did not try very hard to hide whom he meant by "others," because he said he understands "them" since he headed "that committee" — meaning the KNB — for a time.

Tazhin recommended the Ambassador's approach with Nazarbayev should be that we are deeply sorry and sincerely apologize, and are grateful Kazakhstan is finding a way to solve this problem — since the "situation gives a bad impression" and we understand that it is in President Nazarbayev's hands to decide.

US Ambassador Meets with Presidential Administration Head

Ambassador Hoagland met with Presidential Administration head Aslan Musin on March 3 to discuss the Sharp case. The Ambassador briefed Musin on all the latest developments, including his discussions with Foreign Minister Tazhin, and provided Musin with two non-papers on the case that the embassy had previously given officials in the Presidential Administration. He explained to Musin that the US wants the case resolved in accordance with the Kazakhstani government's commitment to us — i.e., that Sharp be given a suspended sentence and deported — and avoid having the case become a major irritant in the bilateral relationship, especially at the beginning of a new Administration.

Musin thanked the Ambassador for all the information. He said the Sharp case was a small issue, but it nevertheless is important for the bilateral relationship. He agreed we should prevent it from becoming a major problem. However, Musin maintained that according to the Kazakhstani government's information, Sharp has committed violations of the law — though taking into account the bilateral relationship, a court did issue a decision to release him from jail. Musin said the Ambassador's direct involvement in requesting the release played a big role in the decision to grant it. He said he hoped Sharp's attorneys take all the Ambassador's points into account in their appeal of the verdict, and argued that a lot will depend on the professionalism of the lawyers. Musin emphasized that the case will proceed with strict adherence to Kazakhstani law.

Kazakhstan Pushes Back on Charges of "Political Provocation"

Musin then noted that the US non-papers stated that Sharp was caught up in a political provocation and stressed that he disagreed with this characterization, saying, "I want you to explain what you mean, because I'm not aware of any political organizations in Kazakhstan that would entrap him." The Ambassador responded that the non-paper was not aimed at criticizing Kazakhstan, that we recognize the importance of all Americans in Kazakhstan following the law, and admit that Sharp committed a legal violation by trespassing into a restricted area. However, the explosives charge against Sharp looks very suspicious to us. The Ambassador stressed that he is not a lawyer and thus does not want to argue the legal details, but said he would be pleased to provide Musin with the transcripts from Sharp's trial that would make clear why we came to our point of view about the Sharp case.

Musin agreed that because neither he nor the Ambassadors are lawyers, there was no need to get into the intricacies of the case; rather, what matters is the fate of a human being, who both sides are concerned about. "I think we need to take advantage of all the possibilities in our law to provide him relief. His family must be worried about him." The Ambassador explained he had personally spoken to Sharp's parents. They are concerned about their son, but agreed with the importance of keeping the case out of the media. He then noted that the Peace Corps will soon be celebrating its 50th anniversary, and explained that there have not been many occasions in the organization's history when a single volunteer commanded such high-level political attention.

Musin responded, "I'm very aware of the Peace Corps' mission, and have plenty of information about the organization, from my own personal knowledge and from our organs" — meaning the Committee for National Security (KNB) — "and I understand the Peace Corps does noble deeds around the world, but incidents do happen, because people are people, and I don't want to generalize this situation. We are talking specifically about Sharp's fate, and I hope that everything works out for him." "As for bilateral relations," he continued, "they will keep on developing, though lots will depend on how we interpret various incidents. The highest levels of our government do not know of any political organization that wants to harm the bilateral relationship. We recognize the critical role the United States plays in the world." Musin added that the Kazakhstani government wants its laws observed not just by its own citizens, but also by foreigners residing in Kazakhstan. The Ambassador said he agreed foreigners must obey local law and thanked Musin for his personal attention to the case.

Approximately two hours after the Musin meeting, the Ministry of Foreign Relation's Talgat Kaliyev phoned to ask that the Ambassador meet with him later in the day. At a late afternoon meeting on March 3, Kaliyev told the Ambassador that Foreign Minister Tazhin was unhappy with the results of the Musin meeting. Kaliyev said there was no reason to have given Musin the non-papers stating we believed the case against Sharp is a provocation, and that he is innocent of the most serious charges. "You should have just expressed your thanks for Musin's assistance, and promised that this won't happen again. This has complicated my own situation. Please don't take this approach with President Nazarbayev." "Musin called me directly," Kaliyev continued, "and asked why the issue of provocation was raised. Maybe he expected to hear something different. It's a question of mentality. This is the kind of thing you can tell me, but not everyone."

"I'm not a judge or prosecutor," Kaliyev explained, "I just want to protect the bilateral relationship. Tazhin put me personally in charge of the case. I'm directly in touch with all the officials in Ridder and with Sharp's lawyers. Tazhin yelled at me about what happened today with Musin. I promised him the U.S. Embassy will follow all the appropriate judicial procedures. Please just follow my lead for the next few weeks."

The Ambassador responded that he had been asked to meet with Musin by another senior official — i.e., by State Secretary Saudabayev — and that he regretted that the Musin meeting might have caused a problem for Tazhin. Hoagland also pushed back, noting that we had followed the MFA's guidance all along and had been very surprised when our agreement fell apart and Sharp was sentenced to prison. The Ambassador nevertheless reiterated his thanks for the important role Tazhin played in getting Sharp released from jail. It is important that Musin be briefed on the case too, given that he is close to Nazarbayev, he explained. The Ambassador said his approach with Nazarbayev would of course be different, should Nazarbayev agree to his request for a meeting to discuss the case.

On March 12, 2009 Presidential Foreign Policy Adviser Kairat Sarybay called in Ambassador Hoagland to discuss the criminal case against Peace Corps volunteer Anthony Sharp. Magzhen Iliyasov, the seemingly pro-Western director of the Presidential Administration's Foreign Policy Center and President Nazarbayev's personal interpreter, also attended the meeting but did not speak up. Sarybay told the Ambassador, "You asked for my advice, so I'll be very honest. We're dealing with a very specific issue with the Sharp case, but it's growing. My feeling is that any further allegations of a 'political provocation' would not be constructive." Sarybay said that both sides should put the matter behind them, and that the Ambassador should tell President Nazarbayev he regrets that Sharp violated the law but that he did it unthinkingly. "This would create a good environment for us to move forward in accordance with your discussions with Foreign Minister Tazhin," he argued.

"Your discussions with Foreign Minister Tazhin" means the understanding the Embassy has had since January that Sharp would go to trial, be convicted, have his sentence suspended, and be deported — an agreement that broke down on February 26 when Sharp was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.

The Ambassador explained our view of "provocation" had come from the clear and concrete facts of the case — a bag containing explosives given to Sharp by someone else as he was about to exit the premises of the mine, guards waiting to arrest him when he departed the mine, and false witnesses at his trial. The point in using this term was not to criticize Kazakhstan, and certainly not to imply the President's complicity, but to make fully clear how the U.S. media, Congress, and some in the Administration would view the case if it became public. We have so far successfully persuaded Sharp and his family to keep the case out of the media and to refrain from contacting Members of Congress so that the Kazakhstani government can resolve this case in accordance with its commitments to us. Sarybay responded that the Kazakhstani side is also keeping it out of the press.

In fact, this was true. The court case was widely known in Ridder, the site of the original incident, but, remarkably, nothing appeared in any media outlet in Kazakhstan or in Russia.

Meeting Arranged with President Nazarbayev

In the March 13 meeting, Ambassador Hoagland said that in a meeting with Nazarbayev to discuss the Sharp case, he would praise Foreign Minister Tazhin for his constructive efforts, explain that he insists all Americans in Kazakhstan must obey local law, admit that we have some differences about the facts of the case but acknowledge that Sharp unthinkingly did wrong in trespassing in a restricted area, and stress that we respect the Kazakhstani court system and wish to move forward with Kazakhstan in the new Obama administration. Sarybay responded, "This wording is good; these statements would not cause any difficulties for us. We'll arrange a meeting with my boss" — meaning Nazarbayev — "sooner is better than later." Sarybay said a meeting the following day (March 13) might even be possible. If that did not work, it would be after Nazarbayev's ten-day trip abroad which begins on March 14.

Ambassador Hoagland met with President Nazarbayev to discuss the Sharp case on March 30, 2009.

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

Click on this link to read Part 2 of this series.

Tomorrow, Part 4 - Conclusion