Four years after the massacre of striking oil workers by security forces at Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, the campaign to unmask those who gave the orders goes on
Who ordered police to shoot down oil workers demonstrating for fair living standards? Who organised the torture of activists in police cells?
Four years after police killed at least 16 demonstrators and injured 60 more in the oil city of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, trade unionists and human rights campaigners are demanding answers.
They will spell out their calls for justice again on Wednesday this week, the fourth anniversary of the massacre, on 16 December 2011.
After the killings, some rank-and-file police officers who opened fire were jailed, and some local officials punished for corruption offences. But those who organised and instigated the crackdown have so far escaped justice.
The well-documented use of torture against trade union activists after the massacre has gone unpunished.
Demands for an independent international enquiry, by the United Nations and international trade union federations, have not been met.
In the Kazakh oil fields, workers have been told they will be sacked if they dare to mark the anniversary on Wednesday. Activists in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere will demonstrate at Kazakhstan’s embassies. If you live in another country, you can mark the anniversary by sending a message of support, or taking any other type of solidarity action. (See links at the end.)
Here is an update on the campaign for justice for those killed, injured and tortured while fighting for workers’ rights.
Justice for those killed and injured on 16 December 2011
Statements about the Zhanaozen killings by the Kazakh authorities contradict each other, contradict accounts by other witnesses, and are difficult to reconcile with video and audio recordings made on the day.
Trade unionists and international campaign organisations supporting the oil workers’ families fear that, by jailing a small number of officers – all of whom have now been released – the government hoped to cover up the chain of command that led to the killings.
Journalist Saniya Toyken, who is based in the Mangistau region (which includes Zhanaozen), this month explained in an article (link to Radio Azattyq site here, Russian only) that:
■ On 18 December 2011, two days after the Zhanaozen killings, Kazakh internal affairs minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov denied that anyone had ordered police officers to open fire on peaceful demonstrators. He claimed that police were unarmed, but went to fetch Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition after disorder broke out.
■ On the same day, the Kazakh general prosecutor admitted that 15 people had been killed in the course of the forcible response to the oil workers’ demonstration. Ten days later, on 27 December 2011, the prosecutor announced that five officers would be charged for “exceeding their legal powers”. At a trial in April-May 2012, five officers were found guilty of “exceeding their legal powers with the use of firearms”. The indictment against one, police colonel Kabdygali Utegaliev (who received the heaviest sentence, of seven years), referred to him “giving an order to use weapons”.
■ At the trial it was stated that police lieutenant-colonel Bekzhan Bagdabaev, former head of the department for combating extremism of the department for internal affairs, had killed Zhanar Abdikarimova, a peaceful resident of Zhanaozen – and that the same bullet that killed Abdikarimova had also struck Rakhat Tazhmivanov and Rzabek Makhambet. The charges against three other officers (colonel Erlan Bakytkaliuly, senior lieutenant Rinat Zholdybaev and police captain Nurlan Esbergenov) mentioned deaths of, and injury to, specific victims.
■ Another victim, Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, died as a result of injuries received in police detention after the demonstration. Zhenisbek Temirov, who had been the officer in charge, was also jailed – again on charges of “exceeding his legal powers” – and made to pay 1 million tenge (about $5000) to Kenzhebaev’s family.
■ The verdicts were publicly questioned by Bagdabaev’s wife, Gulzhikhan, who in a media interview said that her husband had not opened fire and had been unjustly punished, whereas those who had used their weapons – and could be clearly seen doing so on videos – had not been brought to justice.
Relatives of massacre victims expressed dissatisfaction with the trial’s outcome, and demanded that charges of murder – rather than “exceeding legal powers” – be brought. In August 2012 they took an appeal to the regional cassation court (which re-examines legal issues, but not evidence). Judge Doszhan Amirov confirmed the trial decision but said that the question of murder charges “remained open”.
The relatives, and human rights organisations who supported them, reacted fiercely to a statement made during the officers’ trial that “unknown police officers used unregistered weapons without permission”.
Asel Nurgazieva, the legal representative of victims’ families, said: “How can police officers be described as ‘unknown’? This would mean that the whole state does not know who it employs and in whose hands it places weapons.”
Max Bokaev of the human rights campaign group Arlan, who acted as a trial observer, said in a recent interview with Toyken that while police officers’ faces were not visible in videos – which were any case not used as evidence – their voices could be identified from sound recordings. “Now it will be complicated to ascertain who concretely shot and killed people, but those who gave the orders could be identified”, he said.
Ninel Fokina of the Helsinki committee in Almaty pointed out that there was no provision in Kazakh law for civil society to monitor the use of weapons by state agencies.
In addition to the shootings at Zhanaozen, firefighter Serik Kozhaev was killed, and 11 people injured, when police opened fire on demonstrators at the nearby railway station of Shetle on 16 November 2011. A week later, a local internal affairs ministry official, Serik Kozhaev, told journalists that police officers had fired on the crowd.
“That firefighter was on the other side [i.e. the demonstrators’ side]”, Kozhaev said. “Who opened fire? We did! We have the right to use service weapons in life-threatening situations.” Kozhaev claimed that some of the demonstrators were armed, but no evidence of this was brought to court.
One day, hopefully, our campaign efforts will lead to a genuine investigation of the killings. Then, a list of the senior security services officers responsible for the police action – compiled by Saniya Toyken, and reproduced below (“Officials with questions to answer”) – will come in useful.
Justice for trade unionists who were imprisoned and tortured
Security services officers who tortured trade unionists and their supporters imprisoned after the Zhanaozen events have gone unpunished. These crimes have not even been investigated by the Kazakh authorities.
Thirty-seven Zhanaozen residents were tried in April-May 2012 for their part in the oil workers’ struggle, and 13 of them jailed. (More details here.) The trial judge passed numerous claims of torture, made in court, to the Mangistau district prosecutor’s office – which declined to open a criminal case, citing a lack of evidence. The office did not explain why it chose not to exercise its investigative function.
Kazakh human rights campaigner Erlan Kaliev, who acted as an observer at the oil workers’ trials, wrote last year:
In court, the accused started publicly to deny the testimony that they had given during the investigation. They argued that they had been compelled to give that testimony under the strongest psychological and physical pressure from police officers. They spelled out concrete examples of how torture had been used against them.
The most common methods were suffocation with plastic bags; soaking with cold water at a temperature of minus 20 or minus 30 degrees; and hanging by the hair from the ceiling, as was the case with Roza Tuletaeva. The accused were made to stand for many hours, to sleep on the bare, or even iced-over, floor. They threatened to rape underage children, as became clear from the statements [in court] of Tanatar Kaliev and Roza Tuletaev. [Aleksandr] Bozhenko spoke of how they beat him mercilessly with switches [sheafs of branches] and jumped on him.
What’s more, all the victims gave the names of those who had treated them so brutally. They said that the perpetrators – police officers, prison staff or Committee of National Security operatives – very often made no attempt to cover up their identities. Their first names and surnames are in the court record. But there has been no investigation.
Victims of torture, listed in another recent article by Saniya Toyken (link here, Russian only), include:
■ Maksat Dosmagambetov, oil worker and trade union activist jailed at the 2012 trial and given conditional early release in February this year. He has cancer of his facial bones, apparently caused by the beating he received in police custody. In March, after his release, he travelled to South Korea for treatment. Dosmagambetov had pointed to a police officer and said: “You saw with your own eyes how they beat me and punctured my ears with a staple gun.” Another defendant, Tanatir Kaliev, repeated the claim. (Activists have not published the name of the officer, who has not been charged.)
■ Yesengeldy Abdrakhmanov, an unemployed man from Zhanaozen who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment but released via an amnesty, told the court that he had contracted tuberculosis as a result of police torture. “I was stripped naked. They poured freezing water over me and beat me.”
■ Shabdol Otkelov, sentenced to five years, said in court that a security services officer “put a cellophane bag over my head and, stuffing it in to my mouth, forced me to confess to the preparation of explosives and to sign papers prepared by an investigator based in Astana [the capital of Kazakhstan].”
■ Roza Tuletaeva, a trade union activist who told the court she had been suffocated and hung by her hair, demanded that the tortures be investigated.
■ Kairat Adilov, sentenced to three years, told how an investigator put a gun to his head and threatened to shoot if he did not confess guilt.
■ Allegations of torture by police, prison officers and other security personnel were also made to the court by Ergazy Zhannyr, Serik Akzhigitov, Islam Shamilov, Bauyrzhan Telegenov, Zharas Besmagambetov, Samat Koyshybaev, Ertai Ermukhanov, Sisen Aspentaev, Zhenis Bopilov and Rasul Mukhanbetov.
■ Trial observers from Open Dialog say that, furthermore, six trial witnesses made allegations of torture in court. One, Aleksandr Bozhenko, who repeated the claims in television interviews, was murdered in unclear circumstances ten days later.
In 2013, Amnesty International accused Kazakhstan of “routinely” using torture, including in the Zhanaozen cases. (Amnesty report downloadable here.) Now some campaigners are calling for a “Zhanaozen list” of officials to be compiled, similar to the “Magnitsky list” drawn up by human rights activists in Russia – which led to the USA sanctioning security services officers involved in the ill-treatment and death in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Lyudmyla Kozlovska of the international campaign group Open Dialog, that has championed human rights cases in Kazakhstan, said in an interview with Saniya Toyken that putting together a list would take time. “The question of tortures is not being raised [by the authorities] in Kazakhstan – because it involves people at the highest levels of government.”
The UK connection
There are strong business links between the UK and Kazakhstan. BG Group (former British Gas, now merging with Shell) and other oil companies work there; Kazakh companies raise money through the London markets. Tony Blair, former prime minister, advised Kazakhstan’s government – including specifically encouraging them to hush up the Zhanaozen issue – and UK government ministers, together with Prince Andrew, keep the relationship sweet. GL, 13 December 2015.
■ Send solidarity messages via the Confederation of Labour of Russia (email [email protected]) and/or via the Justice for Kazakh oil workers facebook page, and/or via [email protected].
■ Kazakh oil workers information page
■ Kazakhstan: oil companies threaten activists
Officials with questions to answer
►Kalmukhanbet Kasymov, minister of internal affairs at the time of the Zhanaozen massacre, has twice been reappointed to that position. In 2014 he was awarded the Order of Honour, and in 2015 was given the rank of general-colonel.
►Amanzhol Kabylov, who was head of the department of internal affairs of Mangistau region, and was appointed commandant of Zhanaozen when the state of emergency was declared there after the massacre, has been promoted. He now works as the deputy chairman of the criminal investigation committee of the Astana police.
►Abkrasul Oteshov, former deputy head of the directorate of internal affairs in Zhanaozen, who was accused of torture at the oil workers’ trial, is currently deputy head of the directorate of internal affairs of Munailinsky district of Mangistau region.
►Former head of the directorate of internal affairs of Zhanaozen, Mukhtar Kozhaev, has been promoted to a position as head of criminal police in Astana.