37 on Trial for Zhanaozen Violence, Journalist Released

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 54

The criminal trial of 37 persons charged with organizing and participating in the December riots in Zhanaozen and the village of Shetpe will start on March 27 in Aktau, the administrative center of Mangistau region in western Kazakhstan (KazTAG, March 14). The trial will be open, Mangistau’s regional governor, Baurzhan Mukhamedov, and Saparbek Nurpeisov of the General Prosecutor’s Office state earlier (Lada, March 1; Interfax-Kazakhstan, March 2).

The General Prosecutor’s Office in Kazakhstan is conducting three parallel investigations into the deadly events in Zhanaozen: investigating the organizers and perpetrators of the violent riots; probing cases of unlawful use of force by police; and uncovering corruption among local administration and oil company officials. Simultaneously, the government is addressing the social problems of the town by initiating employment programs for the oil workers dismissed from KazMunaiGas and the population of Zhanaozen outside the extracting industries. The government is also funding large reconstruction and business development programs in this declining oil city with a swelling population (EDM, February 1).

Riots broke out in Zhanaozen after a long-standing labor dispute over demands for pay rises and better working conditions. The dispute escalated last year with the firing of 2,000 striking oil workers from OzenMunaiGaz, a subsidiary of the state oil company KazMunaiGaz.

The investigation into the disturbances was completed at the end of February and produced over 100 volumes of documents on the violent riots and subsequent police shooting that left 16 dead and over 100 injured on Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, 12 people died of gunshot wounds, two succumbed to other injuries, and one person died from burns sustained in the fire. Another person was killed when the police clashed with protestors blocking a train station near the village of Shetpe on December 17 (Prokuror.kz, February 22).

Separate trials will be conducted against five police officers of the Mangistau Internal Affairs Department charged with abuse of power and excessive use of firearms to quell the Zhanaozen riots. The investigation into the unlawful use of firearms is still in progress.

The Kazakh authorities have recognized that several factors played a role in the fatal outcome of the labor dispute, including the inability of KazMunaiGas management to conduct negotiations with the striking oil workers and illegal actions, namely corruption, among officials from local executive bodies (Interfax-Kazakhstan, January 26).

Several high-ranking officials and top managers of oil companies will face trial for embezzlement and corruption. The former mayor of Zhanaozen, Orak Sarbopeyev, and his predecessor, Zhalgash Babakhanov, were both arrested for misappropriation of funds from two public foundations that had accumulated KazMunaiGaz allocations for social support of the population of Zhanaozen (Interfax-Kazakhstan, January 26).  

The City Court of Aktau was tasked with the highest-profile trial since Kazakhstan’s independence, a case that has already attracted significant international attention. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General Miroslav Jenca called for open, fair and transparent trials during his meetings with Kazakh officials in Astana on March 14. Jenca, who visited Zhanaozen, said he “was impressed by the scale of aid and attention that has been given to the city, and most importantly, the bloodshed was immediately stopped and public order was reestablished” (CaspioNet.kz, March 14).

A delegation of the European Parliament also visited Zhanaozen in mid-February as Kazakhstan and the European Union (EU) are negotiating a new cooperation agreement. Delegates noted significant developments since December pointing out that the persons responsible for the tragedy are no longer in power and the local authorities appear open to cooperation with external bodies. However, the manner in which the trials would be conducted will have enormous implications for the future of Kazakhstan and its relationship with the EU, said Piotr Borys, a Polish member of the European Parliament (IWPR, Central Asia Report, March 14).

In a resolution adopted on March 15, the EU parliament condemned the violent crackdown against demonstrators in Zhanaozen and warned that negotiations on the EU’s new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation agreement with Kazakhstan will depend on progress with political reforms (Europarl.europa.eu, March 15).

The EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been particularly concerned with the arrests of political activists and journalists after the events in Zhanaozen. On March 15, the Kazakh authorities released and amnestied journalist Igor Vinyavski, editor-in-chief of Vzglyad newspaper, who was arrested on January 23 after visiting Zhanaozen. He was charged with advocating a change of the constitutional order through the media (KazTAG, March 15; RFE/RL, March 16). A week earlier, the authorities released trade union lawyer Natalia Sokolova, who advised the striking oil workers and was sentenced to a six-year prison term for inciting social unrest (zakon.kz, March 14).

While Vinyatski and Sokolova were freed, opposition leaders Vladimir Kozlov and Serik Sapargali, suspected of inciting public unrest in Zhanaozen, have remained in detention in Almaty. It is not clear whether they will be tried in Mangistau or Almaty, if charged. Kozlov is the leader of the unregistered Alga! party and Serik Sapargali is an activist of the People’s Front of Kazakhstan, a coalition formed by Alga! and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Both political parties, as well as Vzglyad and Respublika newspapers, are allegedly financed by fugitive Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov (IWPR, March 14; Central Asia Monitor, June 13, 2011). Accused of embezzling $5 billion from BTA Bank, Ablyazov fled to the United Kingdom in 2009. He was recently sentenced to 22 months in prison for contempt of court in London, but is believed to have escaped to France (IWPR, March 14; EDM, February 27). President Nazarbayev’s political adviser Yermukhamed Yertisbayev has openly accused Ablyazov of stirring up the situation in Zhanaozen in order to destabilize the largest Central Asian country (Liter, February 23).

The problems of Zhanaozen, however, are complex and stem from economic, social and demographic changes that have accumulated during recent years in this depressed one-industry city, making it highly susceptible to political exploitation.