Riot police maintain a presence in Kazakhstan’s energy-rich west as authorities seek to restore normality to the troubled town of Zhanaozen, the epicenter of December 16-17 clashes between security forces and protestors that left at least 15 dead. In nearby Aktau, demonstrators continue to demand accountability for the bloodshed.
A state of emergency is in place in Zhanaozen, where the prosecutor’s office said the situation “is gradually normalizing." But, as EurasiaNet.org witnessed during a December 20 visit organized by local authorities, the hospital is still busy treating the wounded and the streets are dotted with burned-out buildings, including the town hall and the office of OzenMunayGaz. The firm has been at the center of a labor dispute with energy-sector workers that began in May and is believed to have sparked the violence.
Most of the injured suffered gunshot wounds: Raushan Zhaparova, the hospital’s deputy director, said that of 99 people the hospital received, 75 were wounded by firearms. The official injury toll stands at 110.
Bekmurat Turashev, an oil sector worker who said he was not involved in the industrial dispute, was groaning in a hospital bed on an intravenous drip after being shot in the stomach, hand and back. What happened? “I didn’t have a clue,” he responded.
Several patients who agreed to give interviews said they were hit by stray bullets, with one young man saying he was shot en route to the mosque to pray. He did not know who fired the shot, but saw security forces firing guns nearby. None of those who agreed to talk acknowledged being present at the protest on the main square where violence erupted.
Two patients told EurasiaNet.org that their injuries were inflicted by security forces. An elderly man who identified himself as Yuriy Kamenov showed bruises to his head, arms, and back, describing them as the result of a beating from officers after he was picked up for not carrying identification documents. A young man with two black eyes whispered that the “riot police did it,” before beating a hasty retreat, eyeing two law-enforcement officers in the corridor interrogating the injured as part of the ongoing investigation into the violence.
Asked to comment on allegations of detainee abuse at a briefing in the regional center Aktau, Zhanna Oyshybayeva, the regional governor’s adviser, said local authorities “do not have such information.”
Officials are emphasizing that Astana is providing access for journalists to cover developments. “The state as a whole is interested in all investigative measures taking place in an open and transparent manner,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Altay Abibullayev said.
Local authorities are organizing media trips to Zhanaozen and, though EurasiaNet.org’s correspondent was unable to walk freely about the town, officials were not present at interviews with the injured, allowing them to speak freely. Several expressed a sense of intimidation over the heavy security force presence in the town.
In the regional center of Aktau 150 kilometers away, protestors continued to call for an impartial investigation despite a heavy security presence. Approximately 100 people demonstrated near the town hall on December 20, Reuters reported, demanding to know who issued the order to open fire in Zhanaozen. The day before, during a long holiday weekend, approximately 500 had gathered. Interior Minister Kalmukhambet Kasymov has said police fired into the air and on the ground in self-defense, blaming deaths and injuries on ricocheting bullets.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.