Kazakhstan’s efforts to mete out justice relating to the Zhanaozen violence late last year appear to be exacerbating the prevailing sense of unfairness among residents in western regions of the country.
The first Zhanaozen prosecutions opened on March 27 in the Caspian Sea city of Aktau. In all, 37 defendants are being tried on a variety of charges, including organizing and participating in the unrest, arson, assault on representatives of the state and looting. At least 16 people were killed in the Zhanaozen events.
There were angry scenes at the first hearing. Officials initially prevented friends and relatives of the accused from entering the courtroom, instead directing them to a side room where there was no video feed of the proceedings. Some objected to this arrangement and burst into the courtroom before the trial opened, engaging in minor scuffles with police. Ultimately authorities relented and permitted some to enter the courtroom.
Resentment boiled over yet again when the presiding judge abruptly adjourned the proceedings on the grounds that one defendant had failed to appear. Supporters of the defendants shouted that the supposedly missing individual -- one of two minors facing charges who are being kept under house arrest -- was in a crowd of around 100 frustrated relatives outside, unable to fit into the courtroom.
“What, are we going to keep coming like this for a month? This is injustice,” Miram Batkanbayev, a cousin of one of the accused, told EurasiaNet.org. Like most of the other 250 people in the packed courtroom, he and his family had made the two-hour trip to Aktau from Zhanaozen for the trial. A few relatives of defendants expressed the belief that authorities were trying to prolong the case, making it more difficult for the supporters of those on trial to attend.
“Why it is here in Aktau, and not in Zhanaozen? … There’s no justice,” said one middle-aged woman who declined to identify herself.
In the eyes of many residents in western Kazakhstan, the defendants are scapegoats, being used to cover up governmental malfeasance. In a statement distributed March 26, the watchdog group Human Rights Watch said Kazakhstani authorities “need to show that proceedings will be scrupulously fair.” Officials, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev on down, have vowed that the defendants will receive a fair trial.
Most attendees at the trial don’t buy official assurances about fairness. Batkanbayev asserted that his cousin, Shabdol Utkilov, ended up being accused of criminal behavior, even though he warned local authorities that an industrial dispute simmering in Zhanaozen could erupt in violence.
Another observer with a relative on trial was hoping authorities would keep their word. “I think there will be [justice],” said the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, citing concerns about possible official retribution. “But if there isn’t, I don’t know what will happen.”
When the trial resumed March 27 after the brief adjournment, the judge established the backgrounds of the defendants, most of whom were held in a glass cage in the makeshift courtroom, set up in a local youth center especially for the Zhanaozen case. All but two of the defendants are men. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, and all are ethnic Kazakhs. Relatives sat mainly quietly during the proceedings, erupted into clapping and cheering once when a motion was made to free the accused.
The trials of those accused of “fomenting social discord,” a more serious charge carrying a prison sentence of up to 12 years, will be heard separately at an unspecified date. Six former strike leaders from Zhanaozen and five activists from outside, including the leader of the unregistered Alga! party Vladimir Kozlov, are expected to be tried on this charge.
Investigators and officials have alleged that Kozlov was acting under the orders of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Nazarbayev political foe who fled to London in 2009 and is now a fugitive from British justice, stemming from a court battle with a Kazakh bank.
Local people are skeptical of this theory – and they wonder why, if Astana genuinely believes it, their relatives are facing prison terms. “On TV they [authorities] said, and the president himself came and said, third forces were to blame. So why are these people being tried?” asked one bewildered relative in the courtroom, declining to identify herself.
Meanwhile, no trial date has been set for proceedings against police officers accused of wrongdoing in connection with the Zhanaozen violence. Likewise, no trial dates have been set in corruption cases involving local officials from Zhanaozen. Most Zhanaozen fatalities occurred when security forces fired live rounds into crowds of protesters. In all, five police officers are expected to stand trial for their actions on that December day.
Opposition leader Bolat Abilov, who is attending the trial, suggested that President Nazarbayev’s administration was sending the wrong signal by not putting the police officers on trial first. “The first trial should be against those who fired, and those who gave the order,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
A major source of resentment among locals is the fact that authorities have not identified the individual law-enforcement officer (or officers) who beat a man to death in police custody during the unrest. One officer faces negligence charges over that fatality.
This is the only officially acknowledged case of police brutality, despite widespread allegations of abuse. In the aftermath of the violence Human Rights Watch expressed concern over treatment of detainees, and some bruised patients interviewed by a EurasiaNet.org reporter in Zhanaozen hospital last December blamed police beatings for their injuries.
Against this backdrop, rights activists voice concern that an atmosphere of intimidation is hovering over the initial Zhanaozen trial.
Back in Zhanaozen, the wife of one of the former strikers, speaking on condition of anonymity before the opening of the trial, said former oil workers in the town were being summoned for interrogation. The summonses are being interpreted as a warning to keep quiet.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.