Kazakhstan: Opposition Leader Jailed Over Zhanaozen Unrest
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.This trial, suggested Dr. Rico Isaacs, a lecturer in International Studies at the UK's Oxford Brookes University who specializes in Kazakh politics, “is in one sense a proxy battle for a larger war between Ablayzov and Nazarbayev. Ablayzov is the real target here.”Last week in court Kozlov denounced the charges against him as “trumped-up.” He has countered that his activities amounted to legitimate opposition tactics, arguing forcefully that the accusations are tantamount to criminalizing legitimate opposition to Nazarbayev.The trial raised profound questions about Astana’s professed commitment to political freedoms and plurality of opinion. Meanwhile, Almaty-based activists were up in arms when the plane on which they were due on October 8 to fly to the trial -- being held in the Caspian city of Aktau (a three-hour flight away) -- was delayed for eight hours for what Air Astana described as “technical reasons.” This prevented activists from attending the verdict hearing and led several to voice conspiracy theories that the incident had been designed to keep them away. Astana has expressed confidence that justice will be done, insisting that “Kazakh officials have proven their commitment to due process and fair trials for all accused” in the Zhanaozen trials, as well as learning lessons and moving to rectify socioeconomic problems that contributed to the violence. Seventeen civilians and six police officers have already been jailed for their roles in the violence, which officially left 15 dead.The judge ordered all Kozlov’s assets seized, which includes much of the property of the Alga! party (registered under his name). Analysts point out that this threatens to effectively silence one of the few remaining political forces in Kazakhstan offering robust opposition to Nazarbayev’s administration. Alga! is “the only party which provides regular scrutiny and oversight of the Kazakh authorities,” said Isaacs.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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