Kazakh lawmakers give president lifetime immunity and powers after he retires

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Kazakh lawmakers have approved amendments to the constitution that will give President Nursultan Nazarbayev lifetime immunity from prosecution for acts committed during his rule and the right to approve important national and foreign policies after he retires.

Under the changes approved by the Senate on Wednesday, 69-year-old Nazarbayev will be designated "leader of the nation," even after he steps down from office.

Nazarbayev will need to sign off on the changes before they can take effect.

Backers of the amendments pointed to Nazarbayev's state-building achievements, likening him to George Washington and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and its first president.

Other measures passed by the Senate will make defacing images of Nazarbayev an offense and provide property owned by him and his family protection from confiscation.

Opposition parties have urged Nazarbayev not to sign the amendments.

"We call on you to display political wisdom and civic responsibility by vetoing this law," Azat opposition party leaders Bulat Abilov and Zharmakhan Tuyakbai said in a letter addressed to Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev has ruled the Central Asian nation with an iron fist since it gained independence amid the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. His current presidential term expires in 2012, but under legal changes approved by parliament in 2007, Nazarbayev is allowed to run for president indefinitely.

Consolidation of Nazarbayev's tight grip over the country will come at a delicate time for the international image of Kazakhstan, which this year is chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a trans-Atlantic security and democracy group.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan has sustained considerable criticism from rights groups for its poor progress in developing democratic freedoms.