Abuse claims swamp Kazakh oil riot trial
- 16 May 2012
- From the section Asia
On a near empty square surrounded by drab apartment buildings, the setting for Kazakhstan's most important trial is low key.
The court room itself is housed in a youth centre in the regional capital, Aktau. It holds around 150 people, but that is not enough given the unprecedented interest in proceedings.
The defendants are squeezed into a corner behind panels of security glass. Relatives, observers and journalists occupy two additional rooms to watch proceedings on television screens.
For seven weeks this has been the scene of a remarkable drama in which one defendant after another told the court how they had been abused during interrogation.
"I was repeatedly suffocated with a plastic bag… you cannot imagine how it feels when there is not enough air to breath, my eyes were popping out," 46-year-old Roza Tuletayeva, a former oil worker, told the court on 16 April.
"They hung me by my hair... There were other things done to me but I am too ashamed to talk about it here."
Roza is one of 37 people charged with organising or supporting mass unrest in the desert oil town of Zhanaozen last December. Most of the accused are former oil workers.
Last May, several thousand of them went on strike demanding fair pay. But local courts declared the strike illegal and the state oil company dismissed almost 1,000 employees.
The sacked oil workers began a peaceful occupation of the town square, day and night, for seven months.
It ended violently on 16 December 2011 - when local government officials tried to organize celebrations for the 20th Independence Day anniversary on the same square.
Rioting broke out and security forces opened fire, killing at least 15 unarmed civilians and injuring nearly 100.
The day - meant to celebrate the achievements of oil rich Kazakhstan two decades after the end of the Soviet Union - came to signify the biggest challenge for the leadership of long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Tales of brutality
The authorities promised a thorough investigation into the violence, but the trial in Aktau has raised question marks over the justice system itself.
Many of the defendants spoke of abuse by police and security service officers. Some claimed they were doused with cold water while naked, or threatened with rape.
Witnesses called to testify also told the BBC that they too had faced threats and violence.
Muqan Toykeliev, 60, told the court he was threatened with being beaten in order to give a false statement.
"I was taken for interrogation in the night. I was shown photographs and asked whether I saw the people using violence during the events. I didn't recognise them, but the interrogators threatened me."
"I take all my evidence back," he said.
Other witnesses claimed they had been beaten with batons or suffocated with gas masks. Many withdrew their evidence and declined to claim compensation for material damages suffered during the rioting.
Yerlan Kaliev, a member of the Zhanaozen 2011 Committee, a group monitoring the trial, said the statements threaten to undermine the entire process.
"I've been following this trial from the beginning," he said, "and I think the wrong people are sitting in the dock."
Civil society activists in Kazakhstan have repeatedly appealed to President Nazarbayev to suspend the trial.
The presiding judge ordered an investigation into the torture allegations. But Kazakhstan's General Prosecutor's office has issued a statement saying that "at present, no objective evidence has been found to support these allegations".
On 2 May the regional interior department, which carried out an investigation into the torture claims, also said it found no evidence to support the allegations.
When the BBC visited Zhanaozen, the driver would not speak on the record, but he played a song on the radio which the authorities have now banned.
The singer, Bavyrjan, openly criticises the president for not listening to the protesting workers of Zhanaozen.
The Soviet-built town itself is a lose mix of administrative buildings, apartment blocks, oil infrastructure and vast open spaces.
Some official buildings damaged in the rioting are being refurbished but some smaller businesses are still blackened from smoke and fire.
There is a quiet anger among residents.
One of Roman Dostmukhammedov's sons, Maksad, was amongst the workers protesting in Zhanaozen and is now on trial in Aktau. Another son, Khairat, was shot on the day of the rioting.
"I was walking past the central square on my way to my sister's house," he said. "When I reached the fountain I was hit by a bullet. I didn't see who fired it because I passed out immediately."
Khairat still cannot move. He suffered damage to his lower spine and bladder. He has been told that there will be no compensation and without a job there is no money for medical treatment.
The Kazakh authorities have shown they are prepared to look at the role played by the security forces during the shootings.
Two further trials have opened. In one five policemen face charges over the shooting of demonstrators. Prosecutors have also moved against the former head of a police detention centre in Zhanaozen where a suspect was allegedly beaten to death.
But as the trial in Aktau winds down, it seems the events in Zhanaozen have divided Kazakh society. Some believe the government was right for dealing with "greedy" oil workers who wanted bigger salaries.
Others have felt compelled to join a small but vocal protest movement. Since January civil society and opposition activists have been holding unsanctioned rallies once a month.
But many of them have repeatedly been arrested and jailed.
Human Rights lawyer Yevgeniy Zhovtis says he is concerned by the trends that have emerged since the violence in Zhanaozen.
"The Zhanaozen trial reflects a number of problems in Kazakhstan's society: the lack of an adequate response to labour disputes, problems between the people and the police.
"It looks like the level of irritation and disappointment in society is on the rise. People are angry and you cannot hear a good word said about the police. It is not a good trend."