The price of oil: Kazakh activists imprisoned

Seventeen people have now been sentenced to lengthy prison terms (3-7 years) in west Kazakhstan, after last year’s oil workers’ strike movement that culminated in a massacre by the police. It is to be hoped that an international campaign in defence of these trades unionists will get underway.

Most of the prisoners are activists and strike organisers, accused under such catch-all laws as one forbidding “incitement of social, national or religious enmity”, and – according to testimony heard in court – tortured during pre-trial detention. This month a further trial will start, of opposition activists and politicians who supported the strikers last year, and are charged with incitement to riot. 

The judicial repression follows a massacre of striking oil workers by police on 16 December last year at Zhanaozen, that left at least 16 dead and 64 injured.  Police also opened fire on demonstrators at nearby Shetpe, resulting in one death.

Most of the prison sentences were handed down on 4 June, at the end of a trial of 37 Zhanaozen residents. Activists and others who had publicly championed the oil workers’ cause received the heaviest punishments: Roza Tuletaeva, a 46-year-old mother of three and the main spokesperson for the striking oil workers, was sentenced to seven years.

Tuletaeva had told the court how she was tortured during interrogation. “I was repeatedly suffocated with a plastic bag … you can not imagine how it feels when there is not enough air to breathe, my eyes were popping out”, she said (see BBC report here). Tuletaeva was raped, and an iron rod pressed against her intestinal walls, according to reports by Kazakh opposition journalists. 

Other activists who received heavy sentences included a recognised strike leader, Maksat Dosmagamebetov (six years); Tanatar Kaliev, one of the first workers to denounce police torture to the court – which is published here (four years); Talgat Saktaganov, who had travelled to put the oil workers’ case to European parliamentarians (four years); Naryn Dzharilgasinov (six years) and Kanat Zhusipbaev (six years).

A report by the Open Dialog Foundation names all 13 defendants who were imprisoned and another 24 who received suspended sentences or acquittals.

The Zhanaozen verdicts followed those handed down on 21 May to protesters from the village of Shetpe, where four activists received between four and seven years. Another six were amnestied, one acquitted and one was given a suspended sentence.

Leaders of the Kazakh political opposition will go on trial this month charged with inciting riots. These include Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the Alga party, the politician Serik Sapargali, the theatre director Bolat Atabaev and the journalist Zhanbolat Mamay.

The courts have also punished senior police officers involved in the massacre: on 28 May five of them received sentences of between five and seven years for “abuse of power or official authority, resulting in serious consequences, with the use of weapons”. Three senior officials of the Kazakh national oil company Kazmunaigaz, who embezzled funds designated for development programmes in the Zhanaozen area, have also been jailed on corruption charges.

But no-one observing these events from the outside should believe that the authorities are somehow being even-handed, in my view.

Investigations by NGOs, carried out despite the almost complete isolation of Zhanaozen by security services in the weeks after the massacre, have shown that on 16 December: a significant number of victims were shot in the back; that automatic weapons were used; that no non-lethal weapons (e.g. water cannon, tear gas) were deployed prior to the lethal shooting; no attempt was made to detain the protesters; and the number of police officers who opened fire on unarmed protesters was clearly greater than five.

Under these circumstances, convictions for “exceeding power or official authority” – and the lack of prosecutions under the Kazakh law that forbids “murder committed in excess of measures necessary to apprehend the offender” by the police – suggests leniency.

The sentences of those who ordered the massacre are no longer than those imposed on the organisers of the unarmed protest.

International solidarity with the Kazakh defendants has come from Russia, where demonstrations have been held to support the Zhanaozen workers, and Poland and Ukraine, where the Open Dialog Foundation has organised fact-finding delegations to western Kazakhstan and published information.

In Moscow in May human rights activists Liudmila Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalev and Lev Ponomarev, trade union leader Boris Kravchenko and others sent a letter to president Dmitry Medvedev, before he visited Kazakhstan, denouncing the “interpretation of independent trade union activity as the incitement of social conflict”. Such a logic had in history led only to “fascist and other reactionary dictatorships”, they warned.

Let’s hope that some solidarity can be organised by energy workers and others in the rich energy-consuming countries whose appetite for oil is fed by exporting nations such as Kazakhstan. The price of that oil is subsidised by the underpaid labour of Kazakh workers – and it is their attempt to put an end to this indignity that has provoked the anger of the state. GL.

More information:

Report by the Open Dialog Foundation, “Events of the 16th of December 2011 in Zhanaozen and their consequences”

Jamestown Foundation report with accurate information on cases

Radio Free Europe on the sentencing

People & Nature on the December massacre

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One Response to The price of oil: Kazakh activists imprisoned

  1. […] the trial, several activists claimed they had been tortured into making confessions (see earlier report here). Then Aleksandr Bozhenko took the witness stand and said that he, too, had been tortured, in order […]

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