A closed terrorism trial has ended in western Kazakhstan with guilty verdicts for the 42 defendants, who received sentences ranging from five to 15 years in jail.
A court in Atyrau found the defendants, aged 22 to 32, guilty on charges including organizing a terrorist group; preparing terrorist acts; financing terrorism; and possession of weapons, explosives and explosive devices.
No specific details have been released about the alleged conspiracy. The suspects were arrested following a spate of militant activity in western Kazakhstan last summer, in an operation in which one man was shot dead.
Two months later, the energy hub of Atyrau was hit by two explosions that killed one perpetrator, in what was later reported to be a botched bombing attempt. In a separate closed trial, on April 2 five defendants received prison sentences of six to 12 years for those attacks.
As EurasiaNet.org reported last fall, those attacks were part of a series of extremist-related incidents that jolted Kazakhstan, starting with its first-ever suicide attack in another western city, Aktobe, in May, and culminating in a November rampage by a gunman in the southern town of Taraz that left the attacker and seven others dead.
In a workshop in the heart of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley, Nigora Akhonova is seated over a steaming vat of silk cocoons. With measured movements she stirs the pot and pulls out some of the off-white, almond-sized cocoons using a stick to hook the gossamer threads spilling out of them. Slowly unraveling the strands, she feeds them across to Maryam Madaminova, who winds them onto a spindle.
The trial of those accused of unrest in Zhanaozen last December continued on March 28 in Aktau, with prosecutors detailing the charges against the defendants, including organizing the unrest, arson, assault on representatives of the state, and looting.
Eight of the 37 defendants were singled out as alleged ringleaders. They face up to 10 years in prison. The judge declined a motion to delay the trial of one defendant who was shot in the eye by a police bullet, to allow him to have an operation.
The court heard testimony from 14 people whose property was damaged. Several, in an apparent sign of solidarity with the defendants, declined to pursue their right to compensation.
Rashid Saulebayev, a lawyer from the OzenMunayGaz (OMG) company at the heart of the months-long industrial dispute that descended into violence on December 16, gave evidence for the firm, which suffered damage of some $8 million, including the torching of its HQ and the Aruana Hotel, which it owned.
Asked if OMG considered the damage the defendants’ fault, Saulebayev said it was “the result of mass unrest” but that it was for the court to apportion blame. One defense lawyer asked if the damage could be the result of police firing on demonstrators, but Saulebayev declined to point the finger. Relatives in the courtroom listened to his testimony quietly.
Kazakhstan’s efforts to mete out justice relating to the Zhanaozen violence late last year appear to be exacerbating the prevailing sense of unfairness among residents in western regions of the country.
Uzbekistan’s long-serving leader Islam Karimov has been granted an extension of his current seven-year term of office, which will now stretch into 2015.
According to a law passed by the Senate on March 23, Karimov will face reelection in spring 2015, though his term officially ends in December 2014.
The new law stipulates that presidential elections will be held 90 days after the official results of parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2014, are published, meaning that voters won’t get to choose their president until spring 2015.
The Senate session heard that the law would “give a powerful impulse to further modernization of the state legal and political system and deepening of democratic reforms and the formation of civil society,” the official UzA news agency reported.
That will no doubt be welcome to the people of Uzbekistan, which has never held an election deemed free and fair by credible international observers.
Like many a Central Asian strongman, Karimov is no stranger to sleights of hand over term limits.
In 1995 he didn’t bother going to the ballot box, using a referendum to extend his rule. In 2000 he stood for reelection in a one-horse race: The “opposition” challenger publicly acknowledged that he had chosen to vote against himself and for Karimov.
In 2002 presidential terms were extended to seven years from five by referendum, prolonging this political survivor’s rule for two more years.
Officials in Astana famously lose their sense of humor when it comes to Borat, so the playing of his spoof version of Kazakhstan’s national anthem at a sporting ceremony in Kuwait isn’t raising many smiles in the Kazakh capital.
The Borat anthem was accidentally played by organizers at a medal ceremony at the Arab Shooting Championships. Gold medalist Maria Dmitrienko stood on the podium looking bemused at the mix-up, which was described as a “scandal” by Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov.
The film featured Sacha Baron Cohen as a spoof journalist from Kazakhstan who engages in sexist, racist and childish antics around America. It delighted audiences in the West but left officials and ordinary people in Kazakhstan – where cinemas declined to show it – fuming that their country had been singled out for ridicule.
Kazakhstan’s not having much luck with its national anthem lately: The blunder in Kuwait came days after a goof-up in northern Kazakhstan, where the Ricky Martin song Livin' la Vida Loca was accidentally played instead of the national anthem at the opening of a skiing festival.
Attendees pray for those who died in Zhanaozen 100 days ago.
An opposition rally in downtown Almaty on March 24 drew only a couple of hundred demonstrators, indicating that a protest movement launched in the wake of violence in Zhanaozen in December and disputed parliamentary elections in January is losing momentum. Police abandoned the heavy-handed tactics they employed at a rally in February, keeping their distance and allowing the demonstration to proceed.
Protestors could not reach the planned demonstration site around a statue to Kazakh poet Abay, however, because it was cordoned off for a public celebration that some activists believed was arranged to thwart them. Music from that event drowned out prayers at the rally for those who died in Zhanaozen a symbolic 100 days ago, blasting through the minute’s silence observed in memory.
Top leaders from the OSDP Azat party, which has been a driving force in the protest movement, did not attend. Co-leader Bolat Abilov and deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov, who both served two short prison sentences for organizing rallies without official permission in January and February, flew to western Kazakhstan to attend mourning ceremonies for the victims of the Zhanaozen violence.
Scenes from the Navruz spring festival in Samarkand.
In the fabled Silk Road city of Samarkand there’s singing, dancing and kite flying, and the city’s a riot of color as women take to the streets in their bright Uzbek silks. Uzbekistan may have put a dampener on Valentine’s Day last month, but it’s celebrating Navruz -- “new day,” the Persian New Year -- in style.
The Navruz spring equinox festival is marked by Turkic and Persian peoples across Central Asia and in places such as Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey (chiefly, in the latter, among Kurds).
Despite unusually freezing temperatures and recent snow on the ground, Samarkand, with its mixed population of Uzbeks and ethnic Tajiks, is embracing the festival enthusiastically. Residents are particularly glad to be marking the end of what’s been an abnormally long, harsh winter.
Children are performing stunts with colorful kites above the majestic turquoise domes of the Registan, and schools are competing to see which has produced the grandest stall this year. The stalls are manned by bowing girls dressed as brides or wearing traditional atlas silks, and they are plying passers-by with free snacks. These are dishes traditionally cooked up for Navruz and believed to fortify the body after the winter.
King among them is sumalak, made of wheat shoots, oil, flour and water. Women make a culinary festival out of this cooking ritual—sumalak must be stirred continuously for 24 hours, and they gather at each other’s houses to help with all that arduous mixing, casting stones into the pot for luck. The people of Uzbekistan attach mystical properties to sumalak: One Samarkand resident said his wife had wished for a son every year while cooking sumalak, and after seven years (seven is a lucky number here) her wish was granted and he fathered a boy.
Newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy, who had been in detention facing seven years on charges of anti-constitutional activities, has been abruptly freed under amnesty. The authorities’ surprise about-face comes only days after they suddenly released a lawyer who was jailed for her role advising striking oil workers in the troubled town of Zhanaozen.
Vinyavskiy was released on March 15 and shortly afterwards posted a message on Facebook: “I’m free. At home. From the bottom of my heart I thank those who supported me, since that warmed my soul.”
Vinyavskiy was arrested on January 23 on suspicion of advocating the “violent change of constitutional order” with some leaflets authorities seized almost two years previously. He was arrested on the same day Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, was detained on suspicion of inciting violence in Zhanaozen, where 17 people were killed in December when security forces fired on protestors.
The timing, amid a political crackdown in Kazakhstan, sparked suspicions that Vinyavskiy’s arrest was a reprisal for his Vzglyad newspaper’s reporting on Zhanaozen.
Kozlov and other activists remain in jail facing charges over the unrest. Forty-three protestors also face trial, along with five police officers.