As the country attempts to mend the damage to its international image, Kazakhstan's investigation into the violence that erupted in December in the town of Zhanaozen is to put individuals from amongst both the rioters and the authorities on trial.
Police "had" to use weapons against striking oilworkers in the west Kazakhstan town of Zhanaozen, but in some cases the use of force by security forces was excessive, according to a statement from Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General.
Sixteen people died in Zhanaozen when fighting broke out between the oilworkers and security forces in the town's central square on December 16. This followed a seven-month long strike at the nearby Uzen field, which had become increasingly acrimonious after over 1,000 striking workers were fired in August 2011. It represents the largest single loss of life in any conflict between police and citizens in independent Kazakhstan's history, shattering the country's carefully nurtured reputation for stability and internal harmony.
After the shootings, which took place on the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence, President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered a full investigation. Nazarbayev has already put part of the blame onto state oil and gas company KazMunaiGas and its parent company, sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, for their handling of the strike.
Although the Prosecutor General's report says that police had to use weapons in subduing the riot, it also singles out several officials at the regional Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) and within the security forces. Five officials face criminal trials for their role in the violence. "In the given conditions the police squad, after several warning shots, had to use weapons against activists of the insurgency," says the report. "As a result of the clashes, 64 persons received gunshot wounds, 14 persons died. The death of other two persons is not related to the mass disorders on the streets."
Six people identified as organisers of the riot have been arrested and charged. Thirty four others that the Prosecutor General says were involved in mass disorder, looting and arson have also been arrested. The report also claims that those arrested "stated that they were preparing for the insurgencies in advance, involving a group of young people who prepared bottles of Molotov cocktail and armed themselves with improvised weapons."
However, several officials are also being brought to trial. These include the deputy head of the Mangystau region DIA, who was in charge of the police squad; the head of the DIA's anti-extremist division; the deputy head of the Zhanaozen Office of Internal Affairs Bakytkaliuly; and one police inspector. The report concludes that in most cases police officers acted in accordance with law, but adds: "Nevertheless, in some cases use of weapons and special devices by the police was of disproportional character, reaction to the acts of the attackers was unequal to the threat thus leading to the death and injures of people."
An investigation is also being carried out into the death of Bazarbay Kenzhebaev, who according to his relatives died of injures sustained while in police custody. The head of the temporary detention facility in Zhanaozen will be brought to trial, the report says.
The shootings happened after several months of strike action, in an increasingly nasty fight between strikers, regional officials and oil company executives. Journalists covering the strike were attacked and there have also been several unexplained deaths, including that of the 18-year-old daughter of one of the strike leaders. For their part, KazMunaiGas officials claim the strike was being funded by outside forces (former BTA Bank boss Mukhtar Ablyazov is one of those named) who want to destabilise Kazakhstan.
Since December 16, there has been a concerted effort from Nazarbayev to heal the wounds, and to prevent future conflicts by showing that he has not forgotten those who have been left behind by Kazakhstan's growing prosperity. The Prosecutor General's report, which puts blame onto both rioters and police, is one step towards this. On December 26, Nazarbayev sacked his billionaire son-in-law Timur Kulibayev from his position as head of Samruk-Kazyna - a message to the population that no one is above the law.
However, the events in Zhanaozen have also been used as a pretext to clamp down on opposition activity. This week has seen a series of arrests of opposition activists in Almaty, including Alga! DVK party leader Vladimir Kozlov on his return from meetings with EU officials to discuss the tragedy. Kozlov and other activists may be charged with inciting social discord, a vaguely defined offence that carries a prison term of up to 10 years.
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