Wires

U.S. says Kazakh verdict silences opposition

* Opponent of Kazakh leader jailed for seven-and-a-halfyears

* U.S. says criminal system used to silence oppositionvoices

* Kazakhstan says trial of Vladimir Kozlov fair and open By Robin Paxton

ALMATY, Oct 9 (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesdayaccused Kazakhstan of using its justice system to "silenceopposition voices" after a prominent critic of PresidentNursultan Nazarbayev was jailed for inciting violence.

Vladimir Kozlov was found guilty on Monday of colluding witha fugitive billionaire in a failed attempt to rally oil workersto bring down the government of the Central Asian state.

Kozlov, 52, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years inprison and had his property confiscated. He has called his casean "undisguised attempt" to stifle protest and labour rights.

"We note our concern regarding the prosecution of VladimirKozlov and the apparent use of the criminal system to silenceopposition voices," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

The criticism will hit home in Kazakhstan, which is astrategic ally of the United States in former Soviet CentralAsia, a resource-rich region to the north of Afghanistan whereRussia and China also vie for influence.

In more than two decades as president, Nazarbayev, 72, haseschewed democratic freedoms in pursuit of the oil-fuelledgrowth and investment that has made Kazakhstan's $185 billioneconomy the largest in Central Asia.

Authorities have tried in recent years to balance theirdesire to preserve stability with efforts to improveKazakhstan's image on the world stage. The country chaired theOrganisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010.

Kozlov was charged with orchestrating dissent among strikingoil workers in the prelude to riots last December that killed 15people. Two opposition activists tried alongside him were freedon suspended sentences.

Judge Berdybek Myrzabekov said Kozlov had politicised alabour dispute under orders from Mukhtar Ablyazov, an arch foeof Nazarbayev and the self-exiled former head of BTA bank.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said the trial had been fairand open to everyone.

"I disagree strongly with the politically motivatedinsinuations about the alleged lack of a fair and impartialjudgment," said Altay Abibullayev, spokesman for the ministry.

'PAYING THE PRICE'

Kazakhstan's marginalised opposition enjoys little supportat home. Despite never having held an election judged fair byWestern monitors, Nazarbayev is popular in the country of 17million for presiding over stability relative to its neighbours.

But authorities have grown more wary of dissent after streetprotests in Russia, which shares a language with millions ofKazakhstan's citizens and remains the country's biggest tradepartner.

"The hearing sends a clear message ... that any politicalactivism which tries to channel social discontent into apolitical force against government, especially on the streets,is unwelcome," said IHS Global Insight analyst Lilit Gevorgyan.

Kozlov's Alga! party, long denied official registration, wasineligible to stand in a parliamentary election in January. Theconfiscation of his assets, including a dozen Alga! officesregistered in his name, is a serious blow to the organisation.

"Kozlov is paying a heavy price for publicly criticising theKazakh government," said Mihra Rittmann, Europe and Central Asiaresearcher at Human Rights Watch, which also said the trial fellshort of international standards.

(Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana)

((robin.paxton@thomsonreuters.com)(+7 7272 508 500)(ReutersMessaging: robin.paxton.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: KAZAKHSTAN TRIAL/