Kazakhstan: most jailed oil workers now released, but truth about massacre still hidden

Gabriel Levy with a piece on police terror employed against workers in Kazakhstan. It initially featured in People and Nature on 22 April 2014.

Two more of the oil workers jailed after the 2011 strikes in Kazakhstan have been released, and two more transferred from prison to colony-settlements.

Two workers from Zhanaozen, the centre of the strike movement – Kanat Zhusipbaev and Shabdal Utkilov – are still behind bars. Three more, from the nearby settlement of Shetpe, are presumed to be in prison and are due for release this year or next.

The reduction of the prisoners’ sentences comes after an international campaign by trades unionists, during which Kazakh embassies across the world were picketed and 11,000 letters sent to Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The seven-month strike in 2011, in which thousands of workers in the western Kazakh oil field took part, was brought to a bloody end on 16 December that year. Security forces opened fire on a demonstration at Zhanaozen, killing at least 16 people and wounding at least 60.

Thirty-seven people rounded up during a police reign of terror in the town were tried in June 2012. All but the five mentioned above have been released, according to human rights campaigners and trade union organisations. (See a list here.)

“One thing we’re glad about: all our oil workers are one by one regaining their freedom,” said a reader’s letter to Respublika, Kazakhstan’s liberal opposition newspaper, earlier this month. “We waited for that nearly three years. And almost all of them are greeted [on their return] by the whole town.”

Three Zhanaozen activists have been transferred from jail to colony-settlements, where they have to register daily with the police, but can work and meet with their families:

■ Roza Tuletaeva, one of the oil workers’ main spokespeople during the strike, transferred on 9 January, whose sentence runs to January 2017;
■ Maksat Kosmagambetov, transferred on 24 March, whose sentence runs to December 2017; and
■ Naryn Dzharilgasinov, transferred on 24 March, whose sentence runs to December 2017.

Two other workers, Talgat Saktaganov and Tanatar Kaliev, were released, last year and in February this year respectively, following appeal court hearings.

Roza Tuletaeva’s daughter, Anna, through an interview with Respublika, thanked “all those who have supported my mum and our family for all this time … journalists, human rights campaigners, ordinary people. Plus international organisations, European parliamentarians, members of the Polish Sejm and ordinary people of Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Our common efforts weren’t in vain.”

Larisa Kharkova of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan welcomed the relaxation of the punishments, and added: “We can not stop the international campaign […] since two workers are still behind bars. We intend to get them released, and also to achieve justice for all the oil workers who were tried for ‘organisation of and participation in mass disturbances’.”
The struggle continues. Oil workers at Munaifildservis in Zhanaozen met in February this year to demand pay rises and the dismissal of their director. Phot by Sania Tolken, RFE/RL
The struggle continues. Oil workers at Munaifildservis in Zhanaozen met in February this year to demand pay rises and the dismissal of their director. Phot by Sania Tolken, RFE/RL

While the campaign continues for the release of the prisoners, and to find out the truth about the Zhanaozen massacre, laws are going through the Kazakh parliament that will drastically restrict the rights to strike, to protest and to report social and labour movements freely.

A series of amendments to the criminal code went through their second reading in parliament (the Majlis) on 9 April, including a new Article 400 that would punish “provocation of strikes” – that is, calling publicly or on social media for strike action that has been deemed illegal – with jail sentences of up to three years, fines or community service.

Organising a legal strike is already almost impossible in Kazakhstan, due to other laws, and this will make it still harder.

The new laws also include tighter restrictions on the press during a state of emergency, such as the one imposed in Zhanaozen for two months after the 16 December massacre.

The international campaign – including here in the UK, where the Kazakh elite has its closest business links – has clearly made a difference to oil workers and other activists in Kazakhstan. Let’s keep it going.

We still don’t know what happened that day …

The police massacre of striking oil workers on 16 December 2011 remains shrouded in mystery, human rights campaigners in Kazakhstan say. In an interview with Respublika on the second anniversary of the massacre, Muratbek Ketebaev of Civil Society Action (Grazhdanskaya Aktivnost) said:
In reality, relatively little is known about the events in Mangistau region on 16-18 December 2011, even after two years. Even I am still guessing – although, for various reasons, I know more than most about what preceded the events, and about the internal political processes at the Akorda [presidential palace] and in the local elite.

Because the mass shooting of peaceful citizens, and then the imposition of a state of emergency – with the mass arrests, beatings, tortures and rapes that followed – just should not have happened. The situation in Zhanaozen, even after the disorder broke out on the central square, was not so critical, that the authorities needed to resort to such measures.
As for the tragedy on 16 December 2011 itself, it is really important to get reliable information on the real number of victims – the number murdered, wounded, beaten, tortured. This is a key point, without clarification of which there will never be any trust in government in Kazakhstan, ever.

Moreover, it is still not known who, concretely, killed and wounded those Kazakh citizens whose death and injury was officially acknowledged. Remember that, according to the official version, automatic weapons were distributed to the police without any documentation, and most of these weapons were not returned to the armoury.

It remains unknown how many citizens of Zhanaozen were arrested during the period from the start of the tragedy to the lifting of the state of emergency, and who they were. […]
The decision-making mechanisms in those critical days also remain secret. For example, what information got from [Zhanaozen] to [the capital], who exactly participated in making particular decisions – including, who directly gave the order to shoot and peaceful citizens.

It is still as unclear as before why Krymbek Kusherbaev became a little scared, after he lost his post as akim [mayor] of Mangistau region, but then was fairly quickly restored to a position of authority, first as deputy prime minister as then as head of Kyzylorda region – while his first deputy [from Mangistau] was locked up.
And it is definitely not known where the young guys with brand-new overalls, who started to smash up the stage [in the main square at Zhanaozen] and the equipment on it, came from … who they were and where they disappeared to after that. At least, in the material of the criminal case [opened against rank and file police officers after the massacre] and trials [of oil workers] not a word was said.

More about the Kazakh oil workers:
A feature article on the Zhanaozen strikes of 2011
Links to other articles
Justice for Kazakh Oil Workers facebook page

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