A wide perception gap concerning the deadly rioting in the western city of Zhanaozen late last year is making it difficult for Kazakhstan to move on.
To some observers, it seemed that a Kazakhstani court was, to a certain extent, trying to go easy on the defendants on June 4, when it reached verdicts in a trial, held in the city of Aktau, involving 37 people accused of criminal behavior connected to the Zhanaozen tragedy. But friends and relatives of the accused saw no leniency in the court’s decisions, only an effort to scapegoat innocent people.
In all, 34 of the 37 defendants were found guilty in what was the largest Zhanaozen-related trial. Thirteen were given jail terms, the longest handed down to a female former energy worker who was a prominent figure in a seven-month strike in Zhanaozen’s oil sector leading up to the violence. Roza Tuletayeva was sentenced to seven years in prison, and 12 others received jail terms of three-to-six years.
Nevertheless, in a move interpreted as a nod to tensions still simmering in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich west, most of those convicted will not serve jail time: sixteen received suspended sentences, and five were sentenced to prison terms, but immediately amnestied. Three defendants were acquitted outright.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration hopes the trial will help bring closure to a tense situation that has persisted since the oil strike began a year ago in May and culminated in December’s fatal violence, when at least 16 people were killed after police opened fire on protestors on Independence Day.
But in an indication of the raw emotions that still envelop the Zhanaozen events, the judge had to abandon his reading of the sentences at one point and retreat from the courtroom as enraged relatives hurled shoes and plastic bottles at him, activists monitoring the trial reported via Twitter.
An Aktau-based newspaper, Lada, posted video online showing emotional scenes of distressed relatives weeping after the sentencing.
“Harsh… How can one treat one’s people like that?” tweeted a user named serik_zhan from the city of Karaganda, far to the east of where the trial was taking place on the Caspian Sea coast.
The trial of these 37 protestors (18 of whom were former oil workers involved in the strike) began on March 27 and was marred by controversy. Astana pledged a transparent legal process, but activists began calling for a halt to proceedings after many of the defendants (all of whom denied the charges) told the court that incriminating evidence had been coerced through the use of torture, including beatings, suffocation with plastic bags and sexual abuse. A subsequent official investigation found no evidence to substantiate the torture claims.
Overall, 17 civilians have gone to prison so far on Zhanaozen-related charges. In late May, a different trial resulted in the jailing of four individuals from Shetpe, where a demonstrator was shot dead after violence spread from Zhanaozen. Six of the 11 people on trial in that case were given prison terms but immediately amnestied and released; another got a suspended sentence.
In addition, six members of the security forces were imprisoned last month over the violence. Five received jail terms of between five and seven years on abuse of office charges and the former head of Zhanaozen’s remand center got a five-year prison sentence over the death of a detainee following a beating in police custody. Those who inflicted the injuries were never identified.
Like the demonstrators on trial, police officers who went on trial for their actions in Zhanaozen complain that they are scapegoats. Law-enforcement officials have always insisted that they fired live rounds in Zhanaozen in self-defense and that the deaths and injuries were caused by ricocheting bullets. Those assertions have been undermined by video posted on YouTube, which depicts members of the security forces shooting fleeing demonstrators in the back and beating the fallen. At least 16 demonstrators died and 64 were wounded; 35 members of the security forces also sustained injuries.
The Zhanaozen violence also sparked corruption trials amid allegations by officials that widespread graft played a role stirring up discontent in the economically depressed town. Three former oil company executives received prison terms in May of seven to eight years, and former Zhanaozen mayor Orak Sarbopeyev is to be sentenced on June 5 on embezzlement charges. Prosecutors are seeking a 13-year jail term.
Despite the government’s apparent desire to focus on the future, the Zhanaozen events seem set to remain in the spotlight at least through the summer. Eleven more people, some of them nationally recognizable figures, such as opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, are to go on trial this summer on charges of fomenting December’s unrest. Astana has accused Kozlov of conspiring with fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov to provide material support to the Zhanaozen strikers.
Ablyazov is on the run from British justice after being sentenced to 22 months in prison for contempt of court in his legal battle in the London High Court with BTA Bank, which accuses him of embezzlement.
Tension seems likely to continue simmering in the energy-rich west, where the unrest took place. But the fallout from Zhanaozen has not stoked a lot of popular discontent elsewhere in the nation, largely due to widespread political apathy and a carefully-managed campaign in the state media to portray the turmoil as caused by “third forces” from outside and a few disgruntled troublemakers on the ground.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.