Kazakh Oil Workers: the Fight for Justice Goes on

Gabriel Levy translates a piece by Erlan Kaliev, a human rights activist in Kazakhstan. It featured in People and Nature.

The labour movement in Kazakhstan will on 16 December mark the third anniversary of the state murder of at least 17 demonstrators in 2011. The shootings, at Zhanaozen in the west of the country, put an end to a seven-month strike by several thousand oil workers.

The Zhanaozen massacre was followed by the arrest, torture and jailing of activists in 2012. The biggest strike in post-Soviet Kazakhstan’s history gave way to the harshest wave of repression.

Almost all of those jailed are now free. But trade unionists and human rights campaigners continue to demand justice for those murdered and tortured, an investigation of the inhuman and illegal state repression, and the reversal of fraudulent trial verdicts.

Defendants at the trial of the 37. Photo: Civic Solidarity Platform

The jail sentences, of up to six years, were handed down in June 2012, at the end of a trial of 37 oil workers and others on charges arising from the clash with the police on 16 December 2011. The judge ignored lawyers’ protests that defendants had been tortured in pre-trial detention.

Roza Tuletaeva, a union activist who received one of the longest sentences, was last year transferred from prison to an open penal colony, and last month (November 2014) released early, following an international protest campaign. Two workers from Zhanaozen – Kanat Zhusipbaev and Shabdal Utkilov – are reportedly 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 multiple breaches by the state forces of human rights principles and of Kazakh law are summarised in this article by Erlan Kaliev, a human rights activist who took part in the civil society commission formed to negotiate a settlement to the strike in November 2011, was an observer at the oil workers’ trial, and has campaigned on legal issues arising from the Zhanaozen events.

After the tragedy of 16 December 2011 in Zhanaozen the general prosecutor’s office of Kazakhstan made various declarations. For example, it was stated that “the instigators of the disorder have been found”. Their trial would “dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s”. The use of armed force by the police was accepted as lawful, because participants in the disorders had had firearms. Having heard this, all the observers and journalists followed closely every session of the trial [of 37 Zhanaozen residents in June 2012, mostly on charges of participating in mass disorder].

The first doubts came when evidence was given by a shopkeeper, who refused to accept a damages payment of almost 50 million tenge. This was the first discovery we made at the “trial of the 37”. Everyone who was in Zhanaozen that day [16 December 2011] saw the burned-out, looted buildings. But when the shopkeepers, one after the other, refused damages, because they did not believe that those on trial were guilty, more and more questions came into the heads of those observing the trial.

Then we bore witness, at one session after another, to the whole [prosecution] case falling apart. There were a mountain of breaches of legal procedure – not just of one particular regulation, but of a large number.

The use of torture

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.

These statements [about torture in the police cells] were made against the background of the authorities’ admission that the death of Bazarbai Kenzhebaev in the Temporary Solitary Confinement Unit at Zhanaozen resulted from the brutal beating and mistreatment that he suffered there. [Kenzhebaev, who had visited Zhanaozen on 16 December 2011 to visit his daughter in the maternity hospital there, was detained for two days by the security forces and held at the unit. Shortly after being released he went to hospital with severe injuries and died. In May 2012 Zhenisbek Temirov, the head of the Unit, was found guilty of overseeing Kenzhebaev’s illegal detention, and of failing to send him to hospital directly from the Unit. But no-one has been arrested or charged in connection with the beating that apparently caused his death.]

Kenzhebaev’s case speaks volumes about the methods that prevailed at the Unit. And, by the way, oil workers were detained at that same Unit – some during the preliminary investigation [into the Zhanaozen events] and some after sentencing.

In court, the observers were enraged by the authorities’ formal attitude – or, to be precise, their contemptuous indifference – to the oil workers’ statements about torture. [The defendants’] lawyers appealed formally to the court to investigate these statements. Judge Aralbai Nagashibaev answered: I will forward this appeal to the district prosecutor; they will be obliged to provide an answer within ten days. Fifteen days went past, no answer was given, and the judge said not a word. He was reminded about the issue. On the next day he replied: there is an answer from the prosecutor, but the fact that people have been tortured has not been confirmed.

Indeed, the fact that torture had been used by police officers was not accepted in the conclusions of an investigation – conclusions that, to the observers’ astonishment, were drawn not even by the prosecutors’ office, but for some reason by the security service of the Interior Affairs Department [a law enforcement agency]. In fact in these conclusions it was stated that the accused [oil workers] had made claims about torture in order to escape justice.

Then the [oil workers’] lawyers responded with concrete examples. In the case of Roza Tuletaeva, for instance, they produced a clump of her hair by which she had been hung from the ceiling. Her lawyer asked that criminal-juridical expertise be sought to examine this clump of hair. But no-one lifted a finger to take this clump of hair and make even a formal examination. (Nevertheless, Roza Tuletaeva succeded in sending some of her hair via her daughter to Russia, where expert witnesses confirmed that it had been violently pulled out.)

Those who provided the conclusions regarding the issue of torture also forgot to mention the case of Maksat Dosmagambetov, the only one of the accused oil workers who managed by some miracle to make a complaint to the prosecutor when he was in pre-trial detention – after which documentary evidence of the way that he was beaten, including a broken rib, was drawn up in his detention cell. He had been questioned by officers of the financial police.

Doubts about prosecution evidence

A second moment of doubt concerned the evidence of the oil workers’ guilt that was given by police officers. They claimed that they had arrested the 37 defendants because witnesses had recognised them from xerox copies of photographs. This caused astonishment among the observers. The 37 were not on the run. Many of them presented themselves voluntarily at the first request by the police, and were then detained at the Zhanaozen Temporary Solitary Confinement Unit. So what then prevented the investigators from doing everything above-board and arranging for the witnesses to identify the suspects visually? A vital question.

The third moment of doubt concerns the recorded statements of witnesses under Article 100 of the Criminal Code [which provides for the use of anonymous witness statements]. The inadmissibility of these statements was proven by the testimony given in open court by witnesses who voluntarily revealed their identities: Erlan Zhailykhanov (pseudonym Almaz Orazbaev) and Aleksandr Bozhenko (pseudonym Kairat Allysbaev). Under oath they explained in detail to the court the whole unlawful mechanism by which such witness statements were put together by investigators.

In Bozhenko’s case, he was arrested while walking along the street on 18 December [2011] by the OMON [riot police]; was beaten, taken along Alan street, forced to his knees and again beaten; taken to an interior mininstry garage where his shoes were removed and he was forced to stand barefoot on the cold floor for four hours; he was again beaten, and his hand was broken (an X-ray of this is available); and then released. Then he was detained again, taken to the prosecutors’ office, and told to identify Zhanat Murinbaev. At the prosecutors’ office Bozhenko saw a policeman, who he asked to help him; he refused. [As a result of Bozhenko’s statement in court, Murinbaev was amnestied by the court. In October 2012, four months after the end of the trial, Bozhenko was murdered by unknown assailants. The police claimed he was the victim of a street brawl, but human rights organisations believe that he was killed for speaking the truth in court.]

Erlan Zhailykanov said that he was arrested by the police on 27 December 2011; threatened and beaten; and released at 3.0 am, shaking with cold and fear. He asked the investigators where he could go, since a curfew was in place, but got no response. On his way home Zhailykanov was again detained, by soldiers, beaten by people in masks and released in the morning. A day later, he was again arrested, at home, and compelled to sign two statements; “they told me that if I did not sign and did not do what they needed, then I would be jailed”, he said.

The use of armed force

In the course of the trial it became clear that the general prosecutor’s assertions about the use of armed force by the police being justified – on the grounds that participants in the disturbances had firearms – were unfounded.

Volume 26 of the criminal case included statements by experts on the damage to the [riot police] shields. According to these statements, the shields were damaged by small pellets from hunting weapons, fired from a distance of not more than 15-25 metres. The police said that they were fired upon when they went out on to Alan street, and for a second time after their morning parade. However on numerous video films it can be seen clearly that when they emerged for the second time they were in groups of 50-60 officers each, many in bullet-proof vests and helmets, armed with heavy automatic weapons. How could participants in the disturbances have got within 15-25 metres of these groups with hunting rifles to shoot at them? If this really happened, then what prevented these groups of police, who were armed to the teeth, from rendering such people harmless?

Another fact that speaks volumes is that one of the prosecutors who worked on the “trial of the 37”, and later gave evidence at the trial of five police officers [who were charged with “exceeding their powers” during the Zhanaozen events] had declared that the police had no reason to shoot at people, since the oil workers had offered no active resistance to the law enforcement agencies.

Despite all this, judge Aralbai Nagashibaev – without having heard convincing proof of the guilt of the accused – nevertheless pronounced a guilty verdict in the “trial of the 37”. This verdict went without substantial alteration through all the appeal processes envisaged in the law, right up to the supervisory collegium of the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan.

International law on torture

The Republic of Kazakhstan, as a member of many international organisations, took upon itself responsibilities, in terms of the defence of human rights and freedoms, that at present it does not fulfil. In particular, on 24 January 2006 Kazakhstan ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol to it. Given the character of the offences brought to light in the course of the Zhanaozen trials, it is clear that Kazakhstan did not abide by provisions of the Covenant, including: Article 6 on the right to life; Article 7 on the freedom not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; Article 9 on the freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention; Article 10 requiring that persons deprived of their liberty be treated with humanity and respect; and Article 14 on the right to a just court procedure.

Kazakhstan also joined the United Nations Convention against Torture on 26 March 1998, and ratified the Optional Protocol to it on 22 October 2008, thereby putting itself under the jurisdiction of the UN Committee Against Torture and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. Under Article 22 of the Convention Against Torture, individuals subject to the jurisdiction of a state that is party to the Convention have the right to make individual complaints to the Committee that torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, has been used against them by that state. Moreover, a state that has signed and ratified the Optional Protocol is obliged to established a mechanism at national level to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The repeated statements about physical and psychological violence used in the course of the investigation in to the events at Zhanaozen on 16-17 December 2011, and the course and result of the court cases, put a huge question mark over the objectivity and just character of the Kazakh judicial system, and over the government’s claims to be observing international standards and responsibilities.

Kazakhstan and Europe

Considering that:

■ The legal processes at Zhanaozen could not be considered to have adhered to the normal standards of justice, according to the conclusions of a preliminary report of an international monitoring mission to Kazakhstan by the Civic Solidarity Platform [an umbrella group of NGOs, mostly in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, focused on human rights issues]; and that the mission also found the investigation that followed the events of 16 December 2011 incomplete and slanted;

■ The human rights of the accused, and some witnesses, were breached during the pre-trial investigation, including by the use of torture, deprivation of access to a lawyer, intimidation and the falsification of evidence;

■ The evidence of the use of torture and brutal treatment during pre-trial detention, given by the accused in the course of the trials, was not objectively and carefully investigated in full, and that responsibility was placed on the accused themselves;

■ On 7 October 2012 Aleksandr Bozhenko, one of the witnesses of the tragic events at Zhanaozen, was killed; and that

■ The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, after a two-day visit to Kazakhstan in July 2012 called on the authorities to allow and facilitate an independent international investigation into the causes and consequences of the events in Zhanaozen, has “not been heard” by the Kazakh authorities since then, and not during their negotiations of a bilateral agreement with the European Union …

The only possibility left to democratic society in Kazakhstan is to appeal to the heads of European countries, who are about to sign this agreement with Kazakhstan, to ask them for the necessary cooperation in carrying out an international investigation of the tragedy at Zhanaozen that can be taken account of in future judicial proceedings.

[Note. In October 2014, after this article was written, Kazakhstan signed its Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union. (Details here.) The points made about putting pressure on EU governments of course remain valid.]


Zhanaozen: worker organisation and repression – People & Nature. (A history of the strike.)

Report of the international monitoring mission of Civic Solidarity Platform downloadable here

How Tony Blair advised the Kazakh government to whitewash the massacre – from the Guardian.

Justice for Kazakhstan oil workers facebook page

More links here

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