ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan -- On December 16, when the western Kazakh town of Zhanaozen became the scene of deadly unrest
, Asem Kenzhebaeva unexpectedly found herself in the basement of the city police headquarters.
The 21-year-old was looking for her father, who had left their home that day to visit a family member at a Zhanaozen hospital but failed to return.
"At around 10 p.m., I was looking for my father when policemen detained me near the hospital," Kenzhebaeva recalls of the day local oil workers' simmering discontent boiled over into full-blown riots. "That day police were arresting anyone they saw in the street. They took me to the basement of the city police headquarters."
There, Kenzhebaeva says, she witnessed the torture, abuse, and humiliation of dozens of people who had been rounded up in Zhanaozen. "I spent a few hours there, and horrible things were happening before my eyes," she says. "There were many people, but I couldn't quite see their faces because it was dark in the cellar."
Five or six girls next to her were "were stripped naked, and [police] forced them to stand up," she says. "And there were several other girls standing in the corner. People in masks were beating the girls on their knees with batons and belts."
Kenzhebaeva says the masked men "then pulled the girls by their hair and dragged them to another room, where we could soon hear the girls scream." She herself suffered beatings, but is grateful her worst fears were not realized.
"I was beaten around my pelvis; I was strangled. A masked man asked me if I was just brought in. I said 'Yes,' and I was afraid that they would strip me naked, too," Kenzhebaeva says. "The man told another masked person to take me upstairs. They took me to an interrogation room. I knew that if they took me back to the basement, I would never be able to leave that place. So I pleaded with the head of the department to let me go. Around 4 a.m. he set me free."
'Like A Bad Dream'
After her release, Kenzhebaeva sought out local authorities to ensure that her eyewitness account was heard by the government-organized investigative commission looking into police actions during the riots.
Kenzhebaeva returned with commission members to the police headquarters less than a week after her detention, but was shocked at what she saw there.
She says she nearly fainted when she saw the basement, it was as if "whatever I had seen there was just a bad dream, as if nothing had happened there." She says the basement was completely cleaned up, "white like a hospital," and the police claimed nothing had happened.
Local commander Amanzhol Kabylov says three separate investigations are looking into claims of police abuse.
"There were no sign of those arrested people, those girls. But I knew there were puddles of blood on the floor from beatings that day," she says. "I wonder what has happened to all those people, the detainees -- women, young girls, and boys. Where did they go?"
Her father, Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, turned up two days later, on December 18, having been severely beaten up by the police. He told his family he had been arrested and held along with several others inside a garage at police headquarters.
They took him to the hospital immediately, Kenzhebaeva says, but he died of his injuries within a week, on December 24.
Covering Up Police Torture?
At least, she says, they know what happened to their father. "Dozens of people are still looking for their loved ones in morgues and hospitals, and cannot find them," she adds.
She accuses the authorities and investigative commission members of trying to cover up abuses committed by the police during the riots.
RFE/RL was unable to contact Zhanaozen police for comment, but authorities in Zhanaozen have rejected all claims of torture.
Amanzhol Kabylov, the local commander installed to oversee the city's curfew following the unrest, told Kazakh media that three separate investigations have been launched to look into claims of police abuse.
According to official figures, 16 people were killed and about 100 wounded in the Zhanaozen unrest.
Local residents, however, insist that the authorities have greatly downplayed casualty figures and the scale of what has really happened.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on interviews conducted by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Saniya Toiken