Jailed Kazakh opposition leader is free

A Kazakh opposition leader was freed Saturday by a panel of judges after more than three years in jail, his wife said. Galymzhan Zhakiyanov was the most high-profile prisoner in this energy-rich ex-Soviet republic and his jailing was seen by supporters and rights groups as politically motivated. His release comes after a landslide re-election of long-ruling president Nursultan Nazarbayev in a Dec. 4 vote that was criticized by Western observers as flawed.

At Saturday's hearing in the Shiderty prison settlement in northern Kazakhstan, the three judges ordered Zhakiyanov be freed, turning down prosecutors' appeal against a Dec. 14 court ruling to grant him early release on good behavior, Karlygash Zhakiyanova told The Associated Press.

"The decision takes immediate effect," she said. "He is now collecting his documents from the prison administration and soon we'll be going home." Zhakiyanov, 41, leader of the now-disbanded Democratic Choice party, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2002 on abuse-of-office charges that he denied.

On Dec. 21 a special prosecutor for penal institutions appealed the court ruling on Zhakiyanov's early release, alleging gross violations of prison rules, a move that was criticized by the opposition as a deliberate ploy to drag out the release. The opposition For a Fair Kazakhstan alliance said Saturday that Zhakiyanov was expected to arrive at his home in the commercial capital Almaty on Sunday.

Nazarbayev, a former Communist boss, who has been criticized for authoritarianism during his 16-year rule in this Central Asian nation, pledged political liberalization during his new seven-year term for which he was inaugurated on Wednesday.

However, since his re-election, authorities have suspended an opposition newspaper for allegedly insulting the president and opened several criminal cases against another opposition leader, reports the AP. N.U.