As Kazakhstan marked the one-year anniversary of fatal violence in Zhanaozen on December 16, opposition activists gathered in Almaty to lay wreaths to commemorate those who died at the hands of police last December.
Officials from the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev made no mention of the deaths that occurred when security forces opened fire on unarmed protestors during last year’s Independence Day festivities, which were intended as a triumphant celebration of 20 years of sovereignty under Nazarbayev’s leadership.
The mood in Zhanaozen, a run-down town in western Kazakhstan that was the focal point of a protracted strike in the oil sector that was the catalyst for the violence, was “quiet but angry” ahead of the anniversary, Radio Free Europe reported.
Nazarbayev’s administration has spent 2012 trying to put the violence in which at least 15 civilians were killed (most were shot; one died following torture in police custody) behind it. A series of trials this year have brought jail terms for protestors, police, former officials and a prominent opposition leader.
Seventeen inhabitants of Zhanaozen and nearby areas -- including some who were prominent in the strike -- were imprisoned for their roles in the violence following trials marred by claims of torture. Six police officers were jailed over the shooting deaths, and three former local officials were imprisoned on charges of corruption that the authorities believe fuelled socioeconomic decline that contributed to the violence.
Astana alleges Kozlov conspired with fugitive businessman and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov (on the run from British justice in a separate fraud case) to politicize the Zhanaozen strike in a bid to overthrow the state. Kozlov argued that he engaged in nothing more than legitimate opposition activity.
The closure bid led Human Rights Watch to urge Astana on December 14 to end what Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittmann described as “a blatant attempt by the government to muzzle critical voices in Kazakhstan.”
Astana denies any political component to its actions. It acknowledges that mistakes were made in the handling of the Zhanaozen strike and says it has learned lessons and taken measures to prevent any repeat.