Authorities in Kazakhstan have announced a slew of charges against government critics and police in connection with deadly violence that reverberated through the country last month.
The prosecutions include charges against three opposition politicians for allegedly inciting striking oil workers to violence in western Kazakhstan in cases that quickly sparked appeals from international rights watchdogs hinting at political motivation.
Prosecutor-General Askhat Daulbaev said in a statement on state television on January 25 that three opposition sympathizers -- the head of the unregistered Algha (Forward) party, Vladimir Kozlov; the editor of the independent "Vzglyad" (Glance) newspaper, Igor Vinyavsky; and former presidential candidate Serik Sapargali -- will face prosecution for inciting striking oil workers to violence.
He said three police officers are to be charged with opening fire on protesters during the clashes, some of which was captured on amateur video
Riots erupted in Zhanaozen in mid-December after a months-long strike by thousands of oil workers over working conditions. At least 16 people died and more than 100 others were injured.
The area of the unrest is still under a state of emergency
The authorities' actions against the opposition leaders has prompted sharp criticism from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Freedom House, who say the government is using the probe into the violence and the criminal code to crack down on freedoms.
Security services had arrested Kozlov and Vinyavsky on January 23.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, has "condemned as excessive" the "Vzglyad" raid and demanded Vinyavsky's release, according to a statement
on the OSCE website. The group also urged Kazakh authorities to "let independent media work freely."
WATCH: A group of Kazakh opposition activists gathered in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, on January 25 to honor protesters killed in a December 16 clash with police and security forces in the western city of Zhanaozen. The violence, which killed at least 16 and injured more than 100 people, came six months after thousands of oil workers launched a strike over working conditions:
On January 23, authorities also arrested prominent Kazakh human rights activist Vadim Kuramshin in southern Zhambyl Oblast, charging him with extortion.
Kuramshin’s lawyer told RFE/RL that his client was in custody and an investigation launched over an alleged attempt to extort money from a local official in the prosecutor’s office.
Opposition politician Serikzhan Mambetalin, the former leader of the Ruhaniyat (Spiritual Strength) party, fled Kazakhstan for London last week, citing fears of pressure and arrest. Mambetalin told RFE/RL that he does not plan to return anytime soon. He said "political oppression against opposition politicians has increased."
Mambetalin’s party, which was barred from taking part in parliamentary elections earlier this month, criticized authorities in December for apparently opening fire on striking oil workers in Zhanaozen.
Speaking at a January 25 hearing on Kazakhstan at the U.S. Helsinki Commission in Washington, Susan Corke, the director for Eurasia programs at Freedom House, said the latest actions suggest the government feels vulnerable.
"By tightening the screws rather than allowing for political competition or dissent, [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbaev and his administration are on some level admitting their own weakness and vulnerability," Corke said. "A confident leader would not need to resort to such tactics."
William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, speaking at the same hearing, said the government's case against the police offers was also under scrutiny.
"It will be important that due process be followed and that judicial proceedings be transparent. Otherwise, many Kazakhstanis will wonder whether these officials are culpable for the Zhanaozen calamity or whether they are lambs being sacrificed to exculpate the guilt of those higher up or better connected," Courtney said.
with reporting in Washington by Richard Solash and additional agency reporting