Questions Remain on Zhanaozen

by Nathan Hamm on 12/18/2012

This is a guest post from Nate Schenkkan, Senior Program Associate for Eurasia at Freedom House. This post represents his views and not the views of Freedom House.

Minister Idrissov has raised a lot of issues here that are worth addressing. I will focus on the most important paragraph.

“A special public commission carried out a three-month investigation into the disturbances. Criminal cases were brought against those responsible for deliberately inflaming the dispute and causing the initial violence. But prosecutions were also brought against those responsible for the over-reaction by the police and against senior officials in local government and the oil company for failures and abuse of authority. Jail sentences have been handed out to those found guilty.”

“A special public commission carried out a three-month investigation into the disturbances.”

As stated by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, investigation into the Zhanaozen events has been inadequate. Although President Nazarbaev initially promised that there would be an independent international investigation into the events, no invitations to the international community were issued, to my knowledge. A good comparison would be the investigation into the June 2010 events in Kyrgyzstan. For all the controversy it caused, that was an independent, international investigation supported by the state that was being investigated.

“Criminal cases were brought against those responsible for deliberately inflaming the dispute and causing the initial violence.”

Minister Idrissov is referring to the trial of the oil workers in Aktau, which ended June 4, and the trial of Kozlov, Aminov, and Sapargali, which ended October 8. The Civic Solidarity Platform did a comprehensive monitoring report on the oil workers’ trial. Freedom House has issued a comprehensive monitoring report on the Kozlov trial. I encourage everyone to read both. The Kozlov report includes extensive translation of material from the proceedings, including transcripts of key conversations between Kozlov and others. I also encourage people to read the translation of the first part of the prosecutors’ opening statement, which lays forth the government position quite bluntly.

These monitoring reports document numerous procedural and legal problems arising in the course of the trials. In the oil workers’ trial, 27 of the 34 defendants stated in court that they were tortured. Another 10 witnesses stated that they were tortured. These statements were not adequately investigated.

Several of those individuals who had stated they were tortured during the oil workers’ trial testified for the prosecution in the Kozlov trial. Experts who testified for the prosecution in the Kozlov trial were provided only fragments of the conversations they were supposed to analyze. There were also major problems with integrity and chain of custody of evidence that were raised in court but ignored.

Contrary to Minister Idrissov’s implication, neither the oil workers’ trial nor the Kozlov trial established how the violence on December 16 started. If you would like to read large sections of the Kozlov case verdict, the Freedom House monitoring report has translations. You will see that there is literally no explanation in the verdict of how the violence started, or who started it. By the same token, there is no explanation of how Kozlov, Sapargali, or Aminov started the violence. There was no evidence presented that they armed individuals to commit acts of violence in Zhanaozen, or that they directed individuals to commit acts of violence in Zhanaozen, or that individuals with whom they communicated committed acts of violence in Zhanaozen.

Instead, the verdict hinges on the argument that Kozlov et al. “incited social hatred” against a social group – namely, against the authorities (vlast’). This incitement, occurring over a period of 19 months, drove unnamed individuals to commit unspecified acts that started the violence. In the words of the verdict, Kozlov incited social hatred by distributing materials and information “that created a negative image and stereotype of the authorities.” The categorization of “the authorities” as a social group places an undue and impermissible burden upon freedom of speech as it is understood in Kazakhstan’s international commitments and its national constitution.

Much of this “incitement” was supposedly through well-known opposition media outlets. This is the legal precedent that is now being used to close the media outlets Republika, K+, StanTV, and Vzglyad (which Minister Idrissov does not mention in his statement). Members of the human rights community in Kazakhstan are legitimately concerned that they could be arrested for criticizing the government under the same precedent.

Finally, to respond to Minister Idrissov’s statement that “prosecutions were also brought against those responsible for the over-reaction by the police and against senior officials in local government and the oil company for failures and abuse of authority. Jail sentences have been handed out to those found guilty.”

What we saw on December 16, 2011 – and I mean that literally, as I believe we have all seen the videos from that day – were far more than five law enforcement officers involved in using live fire on unarmed protesters. There are dozens of law enforcement personnel in those videos. As reported extensively following the events, the shooting was followed by imposition of de facto martial law upon the town and the round-up of hundreds of individuals, many of whom were tortured. The head of one detention center was convicted in the death of a detainee for lax oversight – but those who tortured the detainee to death were never prosecuted.

These are not “failures and abuse of authority.” These are potentially far more serious crimes, crimes like torture and murder. Impartial justice demands they should be investigated as such. Prosecuting a small number of law enforcement officers for abusing authority is not justice. Going after regional administrators (who were appointed by and answerable to Astana) for corruption is not justice. Just like the oil workers’ and Kozlov trials have failed to answer how the violence started, these prosecutions have never answered the most important question of that entire day: who gave the order to use live fire on protesters?

The government of Kazakhstan desperately wants to close the book on Zhanaozen. But until they support a genuinely independent, international investigation, that day will not go away.


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This post was written by...

– author of 2992 posts on Registan.net.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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