One police officer has become the first person sentenced for a role in fatal unrest in western Kazakhstan last December. But the trials of five other officers are sparking almost as much controversy as the proceedings against the protesting oil workers they are accused of firing on.
Zhenisbek Temirov, former head of Zhanaozen’s remand center, received a five-year prison sentence on May 17 over the death of detainee Bazarbay Kenzhebayev following a beating in police custody.
Handing down the conviction days before sentences are passed on the 49 protestors standing trial was a symbolic nod to tensions in the energy-rich town.
But critics say Temirov is just a scapegoat. Those who inflicted the vicious beating on Kenzhebayev have never been found, the critics say, and Temirov was appointed to head the remand center just the day before the violence.
The officer may have “become a scapegoat for all those who tortured, raped and abused the people of Zhanaozen during those tragic days,” wrote activist Galym Ageleuov, who has been observing the trials, on Facebook.
A quiet residential street in Almaty got an up-close look at death and destruction on May 15: It was adorned with a collection of shocking photos of last December’s unrest in the western energy hub of Zhanaozen.
Activists organized the exhibition to mark a year since energy workers in Zhanaozen went on strike. The workers’ protest festered for seven months before culminating in a fatal clash with armed police in December.
The exhibition featured photographs of the early days of the strike through to pictures of the trials of 49 demonstrators, now drawing to a close in western Kazakhstan. One poignant picture showed a group of hunger strikers protesting over their dismissal, sitting under a propaganda poster directed at the towns’ workers, which reads: “Thank you for your labor.”
The scenes of December’s violence included pictures of two young men lying on Zhanaozen’s central square bleeding after being shot by police. Others showed burning buildings and a charred poster of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The show – which drew around 50 people – was not meant to take place outdoors, but the organizers (photographer Asylkhan Abdirayymuly and the Janaozen.net website) found themselves pushed out on to the street after their efforts to secure an indoor venue were thwarted.
When exhibition centers in Almaty declined to host the show, they hired a private house to display the photos, organizer Inga Imanbay told EurasiaNet.org. But on the morning of the exhibition the owners declined to let them in and returned their money.
Sartay’s is a peace-loving village. But when marauding Mongolian Dzungars brutally slay most of the inhabitants, including his parents, the Kazakh youth has no choice but to raise an army of teenagers to fight back, courageously attacking the Mongolians and rallying other youths to the cause.
Across Kazakhstan, an epic historical movie with an unabashedly patriotic tale is playing to packed theaters.
Directed by Akhan Satayev for the state-run Kazakhfilm studio, “Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe” opens with the Dzungars’ vicious attack and the making of our hero. Myn Bala in Kazakh means 1,000 children – Sartay (played by Asylkhan Tolepov) actually raises an army of 100, but he tells them before the final battle scene that together they are worth 1,000 warriors.
Director Satayev is better known for making movies with subtle plot twists that tackle modern-day problems such as organized crime, but audiences don’t seem to mind the black-and-white approach to history in his latest film. At a recent showing in Almaty, viewers applauded at the end. As Tengri News reported, Myn Bala is proving a blockbuster, taking a million dollars at the box office in the first weekend after its release on May 3, a Kazakh record.
The film’s success is notable since it was shot in Kazakh (with a bit of Mongolian). Films in Kazakh often struggle in a country where only about two-thirds of people speak the language, but the movie (called “Zhauzhurek Myn Bala” in Kazakh, or “The Brave Thousand Children”) is showing in the original language with Russian subtitles in many theaters.
Forbes Kazakhstan has published a list of the petro-state’s 50 wealthiest people. Unsurprisingly, a number of the country's multimillionaires swim close to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
According to the list, published in the magazine's May issue and not available online, Kazakhstan’s richest man is copper magnate Vladimir Kim, who is worth a cool $3.5 billion.
He is followed by mining boss Alidzhan Ibragimov, part owner of the ENRC resource group, with $2.9 billion. (Ibragimov’s partners Aleksandr Mashkevich and Patokh Shodiyev are excluded from the list as they hold foreign passports).
So far, so predictable – Kim and Ibragimov feature as Kazakhstan’s wealthiest people on the international Forbes rich list too – but from here the rankings diverge.
The world rich list features mining and banking entrepreneur Bolat Utemuratov as Kazakhstan’s third wealthiest person – but, according to Forbes Kazakhstan, Utemuratov’s wealth of $1.6 billion is surpassed by oil magnate Rashid Sarsenov’s $1.8 billion. Sarsenov is best known as the one-time business partner of Rakhat Aliyev, the Malta-based disgraced (and wanted) son-in-law of the president.
Sarsenov’s sister Sofya Sarsenova also features (at number 12), with a fortune of $660 million, which she made after acquiring a majority stake in Nurbank from Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva in 2010.
The study finds that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have made huge strides in reducing child malnutrition. It singles out Uzbekistan (alongside Angola) as one of “two priority countries that have made the fastest progress in reducing child malnutrition – both cut stunting rates in half in about 10 years.”
Uzbekistan topped the list of states that have made the greatest strides. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan came fifth and sixth respectively.
As The Economist pointed out, half of the top six success stories identified by Save the Children are in Central Asia (while number six is North Korea). “This finding is – how can one put it politely? – counter-intuitive,” The Economist commented.
“Number one on the list is Uzbekistan, a vicious dictatorship which imprisons political opponents and has been the site of mass killings,” it continued, while Turkmenistan “had for many years one of the world’s stranger dictators [Saparmurat Niyazov] who renamed the days of the week after himself and his family.” (Turkmenistan is still run by a dictator who is fostering his own personality cult.)
A strike at a mine in central Kazakhstan, where workers had been staging a sit-in since May 4, has ended with copper giant Kazakhmys offering workers a pay increase.
“The labor dispute at the Annenskiy mine is settled,” Kazakhmys spokesman Maksut Zhapabayev told EurasiaNet.org by telephone on May 7. He said normal operations had resumed at the mine.
Approximately 80 copper miners at Annenskiy, near Zhezkazgan, refused to surface from the mine after their shift finished on May 4, Reuters reported. Later, over 200 staff from the nearby Yuzhniy and Vostochniy mines descended into Annenskiy to join them. The strikers remained underground until the dispute was resolved on May 6.
No doubt conscious of how a protracted labor dispute in the western town of Zhanaozen spiraled out of control late last year, Kazakhmys moved to defuse the strike. It pledged that “no sanctions would be taken against workers in the event that they adopt a constructive approach to the labor dispute," Reuters quoted a company statement as saying.
Average salaries at London-listed Kazakhmys are 240,000 tenge (approximately $1,600), a company source told Reuters. That figure is far above the national average of 92,000 tenge (around $600).
Members of Kazakhstan’s security forces have joined protestors in the dock at hearings related to December’s fatal unrest in Zhanaozen.
Five police officers went on trial in Aktau on April 27, charged with abuse of office with “serious consequences.” They face prison terms of up to 10 years, local news agencies reported.
Though police top brass have not been charged, the officers are relatively senior: Kabdygali Utegaliyev, deputy police chief of Mangystau Region; Yerlan Bakytkaliuly, deputy police chief of Zhanaozen; Nurlan Yesergenov, a senior interrogator; Rinat Zholdybayev, a senior operations officer; and Bekzhan Bagdabayev, head of the department for combating extremism.
A state prosecutor has alleged that the accused “had the opportunity to use other methods… in particular rubber bullets and billy clubs,” but used lethal force against protestors instead.
At least 16 protestors died and 64 were wounded when police fired on them on December 16. Thirty-five members of the security forces also sustained injuries in the violence. The casualty figures suggest that many more than the five officers on trial used weapons, sparking suggestions that those in the dock are taking the rap for others.
Police have claimed the deaths and injuries were caused by ricocheting bullets, but a video posted on YouTube at the time showed officers firing at the backs of fleeing demonstrators.
More bad news for journalists in Central Asia: An international ranking by Washington-based watchdog Freedom House has shown the region's five former Soviet states performing dismally when it comes to protecting press freedom. All five fall into Freedom of the Press 2012’s "Not Free" category.
Two, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are singled out (not for the first time) as among the world’s worst abusers of press freedoms. These two authoritarian states languish at the bottom of Freedom House’s ranking of 197 countries: Reclusive Turkmenistan stands at 196 (beaten to last place by North Korea); Uzbekistan hovers at 195.
In these two countries “independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression,” the report says.
The media situation in Kazakhstan, which has a handful of independent domestic outlets and allows foreign journalists to work, is somewhat less restricted. Nevertheless, Freedom House singles it out as among “countries of special concern,” alongside Russia and Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan ranked 175th, tying with Ethiopia and The Gambia.
Villagers in southern Kazakhstan have sacrificed a camel to ward off the evil eye after a spate of teenage suicides, a local TV channel reports.
The sacrifice was carried out in the village of Karabulak near Kazakhstan’s southern border with Uzbekistan to “drive the evil spirit out of the village,” Otyrar TV said, after two teenagers hanged themselves.
“Sixty years ago there was a similar case in our village,” Mayor Alimzhan Nishankulov told the TV channel. “At the time one elder said that it was necessary to sacrifice a white camel. Only then would there be peace and quiet here again. Our aim is to shelter young people from all afflictions.”
The local imam said that three teenagers who were saved during botched suicide attempts in recent weeks had subsequently told him of having strange dreams about an old man dressed in white. “In the visions the old man told them that life was pointless and called on him to follow them, pointing to a rope around his neck,” Imam Abdurrafi Rakhmutallayev said.
The creepy man who appeared in the dreams, the imam suggested, “was the devil in the form of a man who was manipulating them.”
Otyrar TV said that, in addition to the latest suicides, 14 people (mostly adolescents) had committed suicide in Karabulak in 2011. The previous year Kazakhstan also faced a baffling spate of teenage suicides.
As the trial of 37 people accused of crimes related to fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December continues in western Kazakhstan, prosecutors have singled out foreign journalists in their indictment of suspected ringleaders.
The Associated Press reported on April 27 that one of its correspondents was among reporters named in the charge sheet, which also named correspondents from the BBC and Kazakh newspaper Respublika, and a researcher from New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The indictment included transcripts of their December 16 conversations with Roza Tuletayeva, who faces up to 10 years in jail on charges of organizing mass unrest that day. It said she reported by telephone during the violence “to domestic and foreign correspondents,” described in the indictment as “miscreants.” In the transcripts, the reporters ask Tuletayeva what is happening and she describes events.
Tuletayeva is a former staff member from the OzenMunayGaz energy company who was involved in a strike that descended into violence last December. At least 16 people died when police fired on protestors.
Tuletayeva and others on trial have told the court that testimony was extracted from them by torture.
The indictment alleges that Tuletayeva was among ringleaders who organized premeditated unrest. It published transcripts of her SMS messages and calls, suggesting that her telephone was tapped before the unrest erupted.