ALMATY, Oct 24 (Reuters) Kazakhstan has blocked access to a number of opposition Web sites in a move Internet users condemned today as a crackdown on freedom of speech.
The West has long criticised Kazakhstan for keeping media on a tight leash. State news outlets rarely mention President Nursultan Nazarbayev in a negative light, and Internet journalism has boomed as the main venue for political debate.
Late yesterday, Kazakhstan turned off all main opposition news Web sites including kub.kz and geo.kz, operators said.
''The situation with the four sites points directly at the violation of people's constitutional rights,'' they said in a statement issued jointly with press freedom activist Tamara Kaleyeva.
''It is clear that whoever ordered them to be blocked did not think much about the legality of their actions. They were most likely driven by political considerations.'' The operators linked the closure to their publication of sensitive telephone transcripts last week involving people they said were senior government officials.
In the transcripts, officials use strong language to discuss Nazarbayev's ex son-in-law, Rakhat Akiyev, who fell out with the Kazakh leader this year and currently lives in exile in Europe.
Bloggers were also outraged. ''Are they completely mad? You can't stamp out freedom!'' one wrote. Two other opposition Web sites, zona.net and inkar.info, were also blocked.
Abai Sakenov, administrator of geo.kz, said: ''I only found out about it last night.'' The Internet is used mainly by young Kazakhs who are more likely to sympathise with the opposition. Less than a quarter of azakhstan's 15 million people regularly browse the Internet, mainly in the commercial capital Almaty.
The same Web blocking rules were used a year ago on www.borat.kz, a site run by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen ose alter ego Borat is a racist, sexist and boorish Kazakh television journalist. Cohen moved his site to www.borat.tv.
REUTERS SG RK1605