A court in Kazakhstan has banned the outspoken independent newspaper Respublika, amid what critics see as a year-long political crackdown following fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December that has seen an opposition leader jailed, his party shut down, and media outlets critical of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed.
On December 25 the court ordered Respublika to shut down its print version and all associated print outlets and websites containing the word “Respublika,” Almaty-based media freedom watchdog Adil Soz reported. The ruling was issued four days after a key opposition party, Alga!, was closed.
Respublika – which has long operated under pressure in Kazakhstan, and once had the corpse of a decapitated dog pinned to its wall as an apparent threat – was among around 40 media outlets targeted for closure by prosecutors who allege their coverage of the Zhanaozen unrest was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state. Prosecutors say the outlets are funded by fugitive oligarch and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov (who is on the run from British justice in a separate fraud case).
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.
A court in Kazakhstan has rejected the appeal of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, who was jailed last month in a trial widely condemned as politicized.
Tengri News reports that Kozlov lost the November 19 appeal against his seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He had been found guilty of stoking unrest that left 15 dead last year in Zhanaozen, according to official figures, and plotting the overthrow of the state.
Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, has taken the political rap for violence which erupted on December 16 as Kazakhstan marked its 20th anniversary of independence. The authorities allege he urged violence by politicizing a protracted oil strike that Astana acknowledges was mishandled.
Ahead of his appeal state television aired a vitriolic program accusing Kozlov of being a manipulative criminal who allegedly channeled millions of dollars into Kazakhstan from Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive Kazakh oligarch who is on the run from British justice, in a bid to destabilize the state.
Kozlov and Ablyazov deny the accusations, and Kozlov has argued that he only engaged in legitimate political opposition.
As the anniversary of last December’s killing of 15 protestors in Zhanaozen approaches, a lobbying war is heating up in Washington that looks set to focus new attention on the Kazakhstan violence.
A group of Kazakhstani activists, with the support of a New York-based human rights watchdog, has been pushing for sanctions on officials they deem responsible for the shootings, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev on down. That’s upset one associate of the Nazarbayev administration, who has sent the rights group a letter threatening legal action.
The letter to the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) was penned by lawyers for Alexander Mirtchev, a businessman who chairs the Krull Corp. Krull describes itself as a “global strategic solutions provider” and is linked to Kazakhstan’s administration through Mirtchev’s position as an independent director of the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Mirtchev also sits on various think tanks in the US and UK that critics say are lobbying organizations.
Mirtchev’s lawyers take issue over allegations made by Kazakhstani civil society activists in an open letter HRF helped publish last month that Mirtchev is a “fixer” who was among people who “enriched themselves while serving a ruthless tyrant that ordered oil workers killed” in Zhanaozen, and “peddled the lie that Kazakhstan is the story of a ‘young democracy’… rather than a totalitarian police state.”
Police in Zhanaozen, scene of fatal unrest last December, have ruled out a political motive in the murder this month of a witness to December’s turmoil.
Aleksandr Bozhenko, 23, was killed in a fight, Zhanaozen police chief Amangeldy Dosakhanov was quoted as saying by the local Lada newspaper. He said two suspects have been arrested for the incident, which happened in the early hours of October 7.
Bozhenko never recovered consciousness and died in a hospital on October 11, but his death only came to light on October 15.
Activists have voiced suspicions over Bozhenko’s death, pointing to his testimony in the trial of former oil workers and other civilians accused of crimes related to clashes in and around Zhanaozen that left 15 dead.
Bozhenko, activist and trial monitor Galym Ageleuov told a press conference on October 15, was at one trial a prosecution witness who had incriminated civilians in the dock -- but recanted his testimony in court and said it had been obtained under torture.
Opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov has been jailed for seven and a half years on charges of fomenting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December and plotting to overthrow the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered Alga! party, was sentenced on October 8 after a trial lasting nearly eight weeks.
His co-defendants, political activist Serik Sapargaly and Akzhanat Aminov, a former oil worker from Zhanaozen, got off more lightly with suspended sentences. The defendants have the right to appeal.
The ruling effectively left Kozlov taking the political rap for violence which erupted on December 16, sparked by a protracted oil strike that Astana now acknowledges was mishandled.
Prosecutors’ arguments hinged on the existence of a criminal conspiracy in which Kozlov acted in cahoots with fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov – currently on the run from British justice in a fraud case – to politicize the oil strike in a bid to overthrow Nazarbayev, Ablyazov’s foe. Speaking to Russia’s Pervyy Kanal the day before the verdict, Nazarbayev himself blamed “puppet masters” for the violence.
The judge refused to allow Ablyazov – who has denied being behind any such plot – to testify for the defense over Skype.
US-based watchdog Freedom House has published a report documenting alleged abuses of due process at the trial of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov and two others charged with fomenting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December which left 15 dead.
The report alleges violations of the rights to a fair trial of the three defendants—Kozlov, opposition activist Serik Sapargaly and former oil worker Akzhanat Aminov, who was prominent in a labor strike that preceded the unrest. Kozlov and Aminov face three charges of fomenting social unrest; calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order (tantamount to calling for the overthrow of the state); and setting up a criminal group. Sapargaly faces the first two counts.
The abuses documented by Freedom House include the denial of a defense motion to question individuals whose names have been mentioned frequently at the trial; the inclusion of testimony from prosecution witnesses whom the defense has not questioned; and the “possible falsification of testimony.”
The judge did drop the longest jail sentence -- handed to former oil worker Roza Tuletayeva -- from seven years to five. She was a prominent figure in the seventh-month oil-sector strike in Zhanaozen that sparked the violence. Appeals brought by 14 others convicted of involvement in the turmoil (of whom 12 are serving prison terms of three to six years), were rejected.
An appeal from four protestors from the nearby village of Shetpe also serving time over the clashes has already been rejected, as has the appeal of five police officers imprisoned for unlawfully shooting protestors.
Nearly 600 police officers and soldiers have descended into the troubled town of Zhanaozen, scene of riots last December that left 15 protestors dead. Authorities say they are conducting a special law-enforcement operation that will end on August 3, the day after the appeal of 13 civilians serving prison terms over the fatal violence is to be heard.
The regional police HQ said 586 officers, including 300 soldiers, had been drafted for the operation, dubbed “Law and Order,” Kazakhstan Today reported.
The news comes three days after regional police chief Meyrkhan Zhamanbayev denied reports of a troop build-up in the town. Speaking to the local Lada newspaper, he said 200 soldiers were always on duty in Zhanaozen, due to a “shortage” of police officers. It was also “time for the people of Zhanaozen to get used to the soldiers,” since a permanent garrison for 100 troops is being built there.
The Law and Order operation has so far mainly netted petty criminals. But the timing of this zero-tolerance approach suggests that the massive security build-up is related to the hearing of the appeal of 13 jailed civilians from Zhanaozen (who include former oil workers whose industrial action sparked December’s unrest).
Two prominent political activists have been arrested in Kazakhstan as a fresh trial over December’s violence in Zhanaozen looms.
Bolat Atabayev, a 60-year-old theater director known for his outspoken political views, and Zhanbolat Mamay, a well-known youth activist, were arrested on June 15, Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency reported.
The two had already been charged with “inciting social unrest” in Zhanaozen for visiting striking oil workers in the town, where a protracted industrial dispute descended into deadly violence on Independence Day.
They had been out on bail pending the start of their trial. Eleven other activists are in jail awaiting trial on the same charge.
The arrests come less than two weeks after the conclusion of the largest Zhanaozen trial to date, in which 34 people were convicted of crimes relating to the violence. Thirteen were imprisoned after a trial described by Human Rights Watch as “flawed.”
Atabayev had declared he was refusing to cooperate with the investigation in protest at those convictions.