Tony Blair's role advising countries with poor human rights records has come under scrutiny again after he gave Kazakhstan's president advice on how to avoid his image being tarnished by the killing of 15 civilian protesters by police.
In a letter to Nursultan Nazarbeyev, Blair told the autocratic ruler that the December 2011 deaths, "tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made". Blair advised Nazarbeyev that when dealing with the western media, he should tackle the events in Zhanaozen, when police opened fire on protesters, including oil workers demanding higher wages, "head-on".
In the letter, obtained by the Sunday Telegraph he also suggested passages to be inserted into a speech the president was giving at the University of Cambridge aimed at counteracting any bad publicity. One read: "By all means make your points and I assure you we're listening. But give us credit for the huge change of a positive nature we have brought about".
The former Labour leader's consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, set up in the capital, Astana, in October 2011, signing a multi- million pound deal to advise Kazakhstan's leadership on good governance, just months after Nazarbeyev was controversially re-elected with 96% of the vote and weeks before the massacre.
The government blamed the opposition for events in Zhanaozen, jailing alleged ringleader Vladimir Kozlov amid an international outcry and closing his party.
Activists say Blair's appointment has produced no change for the better or advance of democratic rights. In its World Report 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the country's "poor human rights record continued to deteriorate in 2013". It said torture remained common and referred to restrictions on free speech, dissent and religious worship.
Hugh Williamson, director of the HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, accused the former prime minister of acting as "a spin doctor for how to best manage the fallout from the massacre," rather than seeking to effect change. "This letter shows that Blair really has no shame in terms of his work, with respect to Kazakhstan in particular," said Williamson.
Blair and his companies have been awarded a string of multimillion consultancy contracts with private corporations, dictatorships and regimes, including, Kuwait, the UAE and Colombia. In June, a group of former British ambassadors and political figures joined a campaign to call for Blair to be sacked as Middle East envoy, citing, among other things, his "blurring the lines between his public position as envoy" and his private business dealings in the region.
A spokeswoman for Blair said he "has always made clear that there are real challenges for Kazakhstan over issues of human rights and political reform" but maintained that it had made "huge progress". She added that the letter was making the point that "the events of Zhanaozen were indeed tragic and they had to be confronted in any speech, not ignored".
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