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A Year After Deadly Riots, Zhanaozen Is Quiet But Angry

A police officer patrols the streets of Zhanaozen in December 2011, days after the clashes that killed 16 people.
A police officer patrols the streets of Zhanaozen in December 2011, days after the clashes that killed 16 people.
ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan -- Many of the apartment buildings in the center of this city are looking better than they did a year ago since receiving much-needed renovations and bright new coats of paint.

The mood of their occupants, however, remains largely unchanged.

House No. 33 in the city's third district offers visitors a direct view out onto the square where, one year ago, police and riot troops fired on unarmed protesters during a December 16 Independence Day gathering, leading to the deaths of at least 16. It's a day locals have found hard to forget.

"A shopkeeper on the first floor has said she stood and watched how people were running and falling, running and falling," says one resident who, like other locals, asks to remain anonymous.

"We saw with our own eyes how police were literally showering the people with bullets," says another.

"Usually it's only in the movies that you see lines of soldiers with their weapons at the ready," says a third. "When you see them firsthand, it's a completely different experience. Especially when what you're seeing are OMON riot police, dressed all in black, building a barricade and rapping their clubs against their shields."

The deadly violence was the culmination of months of labor unrest in Kazakhstan's remote western regions.

Oil workers in Zhanaozen and a second city, Aqtau, had gone on strike the previous May to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

The protest movement grew, with demonstrators furious over what they saw as a stranglehold on collective bargaining and labor rights by the government of longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbaev.

But few predicted the conflict would erupt in deadly violence and lead to a yearlong rights crackdown in a prosperous Central Asian country taking pains to sell itself as an increasingly democratic regime.

Fears Of Fresh Violence

Adil Zhumalyuly, an elderly native of Aqtau, maintains that the government has failed to deliver on early promises to deliver justice in the case.

"The authorities don't have the courage to accept blame for what happened," she says. "We can't get back the ones who died. But the people who fired the bullets still haven't received their punishment. More than 30 of our people have been put in jail. The government should amnesty them. They should be pardoned."

Authorities have prohibited any Independence Day commemorations this year in Zhanaozen, fearing a fresh round of violence.

But gatherings have been scheduled in other Kazakh cities, as well as in Bishkek, Kyiv, Moscow, and Berlin.

PHOTO GALLERY: Zhanaozen: One Year After Deadly Clashes

The Zhanaozen events have focused a rare spotlight on western Kazakhstan, which is hours from Almaty and significantly underdeveloped despite its role at the heart of the country's massive energy industry.

In the weeks following the clashes, officials attempted to address the problem. Nazarbaev traveled to Zhanaozen and fired a number of local officials -- including the local head of Mangistau oblast, where Zhanaozen and Aqtau are located, as well as managers from the oil companies at the heart of the strikes.

Authorities also arrested a handful of police officers charged with looting and opening fire on protesters. But rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) say the vast majority of prosecutions have targeted protesters, as well as journalists and opposition politicians with only tenuous connections to Zhanaozen.

In the past few weeks, Kazakh authorities have shut down or targeted for closure some of the country's best-known independent media outlets, including the "Golos republiki" and "Vzglyad" newspapers and the K+ and Stan.TV television networks. All four offered extensive coverage of last year's Zhanaozen events.

Unnecessary Force

Hugh Williamson, a Central Asia expert with Human Rights Watch, also suggests that authorities have failed to address claims by protesters that police used unnecessary force against protesters and tortured suspects in detention.

"Kazakhstan doesn't seem to have learned anything from the massacre last December," he says. "It should have recognized that in maintaining its responsibility to uphold international human rights standards, it has to investigate such a massacre [and] bring those to justice who were involved. It's done the opposite, in fact. It's persecuted and harassed journalists and opposition politicians, and in the process it's damaged its own international reputation."

Among the repercussions of the Zhanaozen events has been the roundup of a number of opposition politicians charged with inciting social hatred in connection with the clashes.

Kazakh law defines incitement and calls for the violent overthrow of the government as types of "extremism."

Interactive Timeline: See How Events Unfolded In Zhanaozen

The most notorious case involves Vladimir Kozlov, the charismatic leader of the Algha! (Forward!) party, who was arrested in February for his alleged role in Zhanaozen. He was tried alongside Serik Sapargali and Akzhanat Aminov, civil-rights activists who had represented the rights of the striking oil workers.

Following a trial in October, both Sapargali and Aminov were put on probation and released. But Kozlov was sentenced to 7 and 1/2 years in prison.

Aleksandra Zernova is a lawyer with the U.K.-based Solicitors International human rights group, which analyzed the Kozlov trial. She says none of the evidence presented during Kozlov's trial suggests the Algha! leader was in any way to blame for inciting the Zhanaozen events.

"Somehow the prosecution tried to prove that Kozlov, Aminov, and Sapargali had something to do with inciting the people in Zhanaozen and that their particular actions led to the bloody events of December 16," she says. "We have thoroughly analyzed all the evidence, and we couldn't find any particular evidence to prove that."

A number of protesters convicted in the case have also received stiff sentences of up to 12 years in jail.

Williamson believes this is a worrying rollback in a country that is set to join the UN Human Rights Council in January -- and where the labor laws at the roots of the Zhanaozen conflict have grown more restrictive than ever.

"There's new draft legislation in Kazakhstan which tightens labor regulations," he says. "It makes it more difficult for workers to join trade unions and collective bargain freely and fairly. So, in fact, things have not got better in western Kazakhstan or, indeed, for employees across the country over the last year."

Written and reported by Daisy Sindelar in Prague, with additional reporting in Zhanaozen by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Sania Toiken

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