The Peace Corps “Sharp Incident” in Kazakhstan



Sharp's Release


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Caption: President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.

According to US Diplomatic Cables, with Sharp's suspended sentence, the government of Kazakhstan essentially followed through on its commitment to the US. "We can only presume that President Nazarbayev himself was the decider, siding in the end with Foreign Minister Tazhin and his other liberal advisors — who understood the damage the case could cause the bilateral relationship — and against the Committee for National Security (KNB), which likely cooked up this provocation against Sharp in the first place."

On April 3, 2009 an appeals court in Ust-Kamenogorsk, the capital of East Kazakhstan oblast, held an appellate hearing regarding the criminal case against Peace Corps volunteer Anthony Sharp, who was convicted on explosives charges on February 26 and sentenced to two years in prison. Sharp attended the hearing, together with his attorneys, Consular Chief, and Peace Corps Country Director.

Oral arguments before the three-judge panel lasted 30 minutes, and Sharp made his own very brief statement to the court in which he did not admit any guilt, but essentially apologized for what had happened. After 20 minutes of deliberations, the judges reaffirmed Sharp's conviction as well as a fine against him of 254,600 tenge (approximately $1700), but suspended the prison sentence, effectively putting him on probation for two years. The appeals court's decision also freed Sharp to travel within Kazakhstan. He departed several hours after the ruling by plane for Almaty, arriving there late afternoon April 3 and residing in Almaty with the Peace Corps Country Director in the interim.

Kazakhstan Followed Through on its Commitment

According to US Diplomatic Cables, with Sharp's suspended sentence, the government of Kazakhstan essentially followed through on its commitment to the US. "We can only presume that President Nazarbayev himself was the decider, siding in the end with Foreign Minister Tazhin and his other liberal advisors — who understood the damage the case could cause the bilateral relationship — and against the Committee for National Security (KNB), which likely cooked up this provocation against Sharp in the first place."

On June 3, the appellate court in Ust-Kamenogorsk accepted the procurator's motion to reduce Sharp's sentence to "time served" and a fine. The court granted the motion, vacating Sharp's two-year probation. Sharp's attorneys then obtained the necessary documentation confirming that there were no further restriction's on Sharp's travel.

On June 5, 2009 the US Ambassador met with Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Kairat Sarybay and thanked Sarybay for his assistance and discretion in expediting the resolution of the ongoing case of Peace Corps volunteer Anthony Sharp, who was convicted of unlawful possession of industrial explosives on February 26. Sarybay told the Ambassador that "there is a real political intention to solve this case. We hope that you can see that our bureaucracy handled the issue properly. No one can say that Kazakhstan is not running according to the rule of law."

While carefully stating that he did not expect there to be any quid pro quo, Sarybay said that, in light of Kazakhstan's assistance with the Sharp case, if Kazakhstani citizens living in the United States find themselves in similar circumstances in the future, "we hope that they will be treated fairly." Sarybay also told the Ambassador that some influential members of the government had wanted to require the U.S. Attorney General to send a letter to Kazakhstan's Procurator General, requesting assistance with Sharp's case. Sarybay, however, said that he had argued successfully against that, saying it would be an additional precondition for Sharp's release and would come as a surprise to the U.S. government.

Sarybay suggested that the Ambassador draft a thank you letter to Foreign Minister Tazhin that would thank the government for its support and cooperation and note that "everything was done properly and correctly" concerning the case. The Ambassador said he already had a draft thank-you letter prepared and would send it as soon as Sharp left Kazakhstan.

Sharp Leaves Kazakhstan

On June 12, the Ministry of Foreign Relations called the US embassy with their response diplomatic note to the US April 13 note, confirming that there were no impediments to Sharp's departure. Sharp left Kazakhstan on June 13. The Ambassador sent a letter to Foreign Minister Tazhin on June 16 thanking him for his assistance on the case.





Conclusion

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"I do hope we will return in the future. I know many, many people who were touched by Peace Corps volunteers in a positive way. As with all relationships in life, there are ups and downs. Sometimes space is the best thing. Perhaps some time apart will be a blessing for both Peace Corps and Kazakhstan. This country is full of resources and people who are actively working towards the future of a better Kazakhstan. It really is an amazing country with an incredibly rich history and culture." - Statement by a Peace Corps Volunteer leaving Kazakhstan.

"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." - US Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland

Many residents of Ridder have a positive view of the Peace Corps Volunteers who have served in Ridder over the years praising the role of the Peace Corps in providing Ridder's youth with opportunities to develop their English. "One local resident, who sold fish out of a container truck in the local market, reminisced at length about her close personal relationship with the young woman who had lived with her family. She said that it was because of this experience that her son, who is studying English and Chinese in Ust-Kamenogorsk, already speaks excellent English, and had even interpreted for an ambassador visiting the region." - Report by a US Embassy Staffer on Ridder, Kazakhstan.

"Though the case took months to resolve, the embassy's confidence that Nazarbayev would do the right thing in the end was not misplaced. He was likely the decider, siding with his more progressive advisors, like Tazhin and Sarybay, and against the KNB, to protect the bilateral relationship and thus maintain his long-standing policy of balancing Kazakhstan's relations with Russia, China, and the United States." - US Diplomatic Cable.


Just days before the end of his Peace Corps tour, Tony Sharp accepted an invitation from two Kazakhstani citizens, including his local counterpart, to take a late-night tour of a mine near the town of Ridder. Upon exiting the mine, one of the locals gave Sharp his bag to hold while he climbed back over the security fence. Local authorities were waiting, and promptly arrested Sharp, claiming that the bag contained industrial explosives. These facts are not in dispute.

The incident had all the makings of a Soviet-style set-up, engineered by the pro-Moscow old guard in the Committee for National Security (the KNB, successor to the KGB), and aimed at discrediting the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan and at damaging U.S.-Kazakhstan relations at a time when Kazakhstan's leadership saw the election of President Obama as an opportunity to enhance its relationship with the United States.

The US Ambassador raised Sharp's case in December and January with State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev and with Sarybay, stressing that he believed it was a provocation, and urging that the government intervene at the highest levels to have it dismissed and to have Sharp deported from the country. The police concluded their investigation on January 14, and charges were brought against Sharp for illegal possession of explosives. Kaliyev informed embassy representatives on January 21 that he had worked out an arrangement with the relevant government agencies: If Sharp agreed to a closed trial and we all kept the case out of the media, Sharp would be convicted, but given a suspended sentence and immediately deported.

Sharp accepted the deal, but the government failed to live up to its bargain. After a month long-trial which ended on February 26, a judge convicted Sharp on the explosives charges and sentenced him to two years in prison. He was immediately taken off to jail, but was released the following day after the Ambassador got Foreign Minister Tazhin to intervene.

Tazhin made clear that the KNB and Ministry of Internal Affairs had pushed back and were pressing their view that Sharp was an "American spy." He nevertheless promised that on appeal, the case would be resolved in accordance with the earlier agreement. It appeared, however, that President Nazarbayev would himself make the final decision. Sarybay arranged a meeting for the Ambassador with Nazarbayev on March 30, where the Ambassador expressed regret that Sharp had trespassed at the mine, but conveyed our hope we could put the case behind us and move forward on enhancing the bilateral relationship. Though there were a number of bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, the case moved slowly toward resolution following the Nazarbayev meeting.

Though the case took months to resolve, the embassy's confidence that Nazarbayev would do the right thing in the end was not misplaced. He was likely the decider, siding with his more progressive advisors, like Tazhin and Sarybay, and against the KNB, to protect the bilateral relationship and thus maintain his long-standing policy of balancing Kazakhstan's relations with Russia, China, and the United States.





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