Not too long ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was held in the highest regard by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration, in large part because Astana chaired the group in 2010. Now, the OSCE is an object of Kazakhstan’s contempt.
The trials of those facing charges over December’s fatal violence in Zhanaozen are approaching: Investigators announced on March 2 that they had finished work, paving the way for hearings to start within the coming weeks.
The trials will be open, but – belying official statements that the situation in the town has stabilized – they will be held 120 kilometers away, in Aktau, since Zhanaozen is too “restless” to host them, Aktau-based newspaper Lada quoted a local prosecutor as saying.
The number of protestors standing trial vastly outnumbers the five police officers facing charges, though security forces caused most of the 17 deaths that occurred amid the violence when they opened fire on demonstrators in Zhanaozen and the nearby town of Shetpe.
At least 40 protestors are facing trial, including three on charges of organizing the unrest; 29 people are under arrest, 11 are out on bail and six have been amnestied.
Three police officers face charges of abuse of office over the fatalities, and the former deputy regional police chief will be tried for failing to “prevent the illegal actions of subordinates.” The head of a detention center in which one man, Bazarbay Kenzhebayev, was beaten to death is being charged – but the police officers who inflicted the beating have not been identified.
Opposition leaders are back behind bars in Almaty, jailed for organizing a protest less than two weeks after their release from prison for rallying without official permission last month. The growing cycle of protests, arrests, and more protests appears to be encouraging the opposition, which is calling for fair elections and political reform in Kazakhstan.
OSDP Azat party co-leader Bolat Abilov and deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov were jailed for 15 days immediately after the February 25 protest. The sentence is “political revenge by the regime,” Kosanov told EurasiaNet.org by telephone as he was being taken to prison, announcing that he and Abilov would stage a hunger strike in protest.
The sentences add to mounting tensions in Kazakhstan, which is in the throes of what critics see as a political crackdown launched by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration following December’s deadly violence in Zhanaozen. Astana denies any crackdown.
The imprisonments followed a tense rally in central Almaty that saw scuffles between police and protestors amid cries of “Nazarbayev out!” Several demonstrators were arrested, some carried aloft to police vans as they shouted anti-government slogans.
OSDP Azat leaders Kosanov, Abilov and Zharmakhan Tuyakbay were rounded up before reaching the rally, as were three other organizers – Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, Bakhytgul Makimbay and Yermurat Bapi.
A prominent cleric from Uzbekistan is recovering after being shot several times in an apparent assassination attempt in Sweden.
Obid-kori Nazarov was attacked on February 22 by an assailant who lay in wait near his home in the small town of Stromsund, the independent Uznews.net website reported, citing an unnamed associate.
The attacker fled after Nazarov shouted for help. He was taken to a hospital for an operation and there were conflicting reports about his condition, described by Uznews.net as “serious but stable” and by RFE/RL as “critical.”
Nazarov gained popularity as an imam in Uzbekistan in the 1990s, where his fiery sermons led President Islam Karimov’s administration to cast him as an opponent at a time when the main challenge to Karimov’s rule came from clerics with wide public followings.
He still has “tens of thousands of followers and admirers” and “is considered one of the most powerful opponents of the regime,” RFE/RL commented.
In a move that has no doubt delighted some in Astana, London-based businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov has fallen foul of the British legal system in his long-running High Court battle with Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank.
On February 16 Judge Nigel Teare ordered Ablyazov be jailed for 22 months for contempt of court. He accused Ablyazov of “deliberate and brazen” deception in concealing assets he was ordered to disclose, including a house worth a million pounds on The Bishops Avenue, a swish London address nicknamed “billionaires’ row.”
Ablyazov is being sued in the London High Court by BTA Bank, the financial institution he chaired and owned through undeclared holdings until the state forcibly nationalized it in 2009.
BTA alleges Ablyazov has defrauded it of $5 billion, a charge he denies.
In a telephone interview with EurasiaNet.org in January, Ablyazov said BTA – which recently defaulted on its bonds – was being used by the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev as “a tool of political pressure on me.”
Ablyazov’s defense team concedes that Ablyazov has in the past concealed holdings through offshore firms to protect his business interests from the authorities in Kazakhstan, where they say the rule of law does not apply.
A crackdown on Kazakhstan’s political opposition, activists and media critical of Astana is continuing: Less than a week after opposition leaders were jailed for rallying in Almaty without permission, more protest participants have been taken to court while other political activists face separate, more serious charges over December’s violence in Zhanaozen.
Youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay was charged on February 3 with inciting social discord in Zhanaozen, a charge carrying a jail sentence of up to 12 years. This is the same charge faced by Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered Alga! party who has been in detention since January 23, and activists Ayzhangul Amirova and Serik Sapargali. Outspoken theater director Bolat Atabayev is an official suspect on the same charge, though not yet indicted.
OSCE Parliamentary Assembly human rights committee chair Matteo Mecacci has described Kozlov and newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy, arrested in a separate case on the same day as Kozlov, as “political prisoners” and called for their release.
Any industrial dispute in Kazakhstan is the focus of heightened attention these days, after a strike in the western energy hub of Zhanaozen spiraled into fatal violence in December.
Now a labor dispute which broke out in western Atyrau Region at a local subcontractor for American energy giant Chevron has been settled with the offer of a pay raise and without recourse to strike action, the director of the firm involved has said.
Yves Shama, general director of the Senimdi Kurylys company -- which carries out construction work for Tengizchevroil, which is 50 percent owned by Chevron and is the operator of Kazakhstan’s largest field, Tengiz -- denied earlier reports that workers at two affiliated firms had downed tools demanding a raise.
“There wasn’t any strike action,” Shama told EurasiaNet.org by telephone on February 2. He said some employees had requested a pay rise on January 25 but had returned to work after management promised to consider their demands.
On January 28 the company made an offer that was subsequently accepted by most employees. It consisted of a 25-percent across-the-board raise backdated to January 1, a “small bonus” for 2011, and a pledge to conduct inflation reviews every six months. Shama declined to specify salary scales, describing it as “quite a confidential question.”
“I think everyone’s been satisfied,” he said, though he acknowledged that 10-15 staff members had left the company over the issue. The company and its affiliates currently employ around 600 people.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov’s first trip to Washington couldn’t have come at a more difficult time for his country. But for his meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expected on February 1, he comes bearing good news: Prominent human rights advocate Yevgeniy Zhovtis is about to be released from prison.
Zhovtis will be free in 15 days under a prisoner amnesty marking Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence, his NGO announced on Twitter. He will have served nearly two and a half years of a four-year prison sentence that he received in 2009 following a controversial vehicular manslaughter trial.
His supporters believe the case was used to silence a respected rights advocate. If so it didn’t work: Zhovtis, who is a lawyer, used his time behind bars advising prisoners on their legal battles, and continued to lobby for human rights from his prison cell.
A strike has broken out in western Kazakhstan at a local subcontractor for American energy giant Chevron, Radio Free Europe reports. News of fresh unrest is sure to cause disquiet in Astana, coming six weeks after a long-standing industrial dispute in the western energy hub of Zhanaozen descended into fatal violence.
Radio Free Europe said that around 200 workers employed in Atyrau Region by two companies affiliated to the Senimdi Kurylys firm, which carries out construction work for the Tengizchevroil oilfield operator (50 percent owned by Chevron), had downed tools on January 25, demanding salaries be almost doubled from 80,000-90,000 tenge ($540-$600) to 150,000 tenge ($1,000). EurasiaNet.org could not reach Senimdi Kurylys for comment.
Tengiz is the largest oilfield in Kazakhstan.
On January 29 Radio Free Europe reported that managers had offered a 25-percent raise, but workers continued to demand that pay be doubled. The report quoted unidentified activists as saying that management had ordered strikers to leave their company-provided hostels if they were not going to return to work.
This labor dispute in the Zhylyoy district of Atyrau Region near the Caspian Sea is over 1,000 kilometers north of Zhanaozen by road, but the row echoes the strike that broke out in that town last May, which also centered on pay.