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One Year after Zhanaozen


On December 16, 2011, police in riot gear accompanied by plainclothes officers swept into the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen to put down a protest by striking oil workers that had turned to rioting. At least a dozen protesters were shot dead. Dozens more were wounded. One protester was killed by police in a nearby town, and another died after being tortured in the investigation that followed. In the aftermath, it was clear that the incident would test Kazakhstan’s commitment to impartial justice and free speech. Unfortunately, the government’s response has been a classic authoritarian crackdown.


In the last year, the government has moved relentlessly and methodically to crush the country’s already limited civic life. Hundreds of locals in Zhanaozen and nearby Aktau were detained, and many of them likely tortured. Thirty-four oil workers were convicted of organizing the riots in a mass trial where detailed allegations of torture were ignored. The government investigation swept up a whole slew of civil society and opposition activists as material witnesses and possible defendants, before settling on Vladimir Kozlov.


Kozlov, leader of the unregistered opposition party Alga, and two codefendants were convicted in October of “inciting social hatred” against the government in order to create conflict in Zhanaozen. Somehow Kozlov—who even in the prosecution’s conspiratorial version of events never distributed or advocated the use of weapons—has become the one responsible for unarmed protesters being shot in the back. His trial, which Freedom House monitored and reported on, was marked by procedural irregularities and built around the testimony of his former fellow activists, many of whom had said they were tortured in their own trials.


The government of Kazakhstan has highlighted the fact that some local officials were tried on corruption charges, and a handful of police officers were found guilty of “exceeding authority” for their role in the Zhanaozen events. But specific and well-substantiated allegations of torture went uninvestigated. Despite President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s initial pledge that there would be an independent international inquiry, no such probe has materialized, even after the UN human rights commissioner explicitly requested it. One year later, we still do not know who gave the order to use live fire on unarmed protesters, and dozens of officers who participated in the shootings have faced no charges at all.


Now the Kozlov conviction is being used to shutter media outlets associated with the opposition across the country on grounds of “extremism.” The verdict held that Kozlov led an “organized criminal group” funded by exiled oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, establishing a guilt-by-association logic that could be used to punish practically anyone engaged in civic or political activism. The outlets that are being closed, like the newspaper Respublika, the online news site Stan TV, and the satellite broadcaster K+, have interacted regularly with all prominent figures in political life or civil society in Kazakhstan. Kazakh human rights activists are talking grimly about their country sliding toward conditions associated with Uzbekistan, long regarded as the most ruthless and aggressively repressive government in the region.


Even as the government tars the opposition as extremist, it appears at an utter loss to prevent or understand the wave of actual terrorist attacks that have struck Kazakhstan over the past two years. President Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country through 21 years of independence and is permitted by constitutional amendment to rule for life, has made “stability” the raison d’être of his regime. But now even that accomplishment seems fragile. With no clear successor and no institutions that do not depend on the president himself, there is blunt discussion in Kazakhstan of chaos and clan warfare when Nazarbayev dies.


On December 1, Kazakhstan observed its first annual “First President’s Day.” The holiday is a new honor for Nazarbayev, who is officially the “Leader of the Nation” under the constitution. He marked the occasion by appearing at a stadium before thousands of choreographed youth celebrating “a healthy lifestyle.” The children danced and shouted “One Nation! One Fate! One Leader!” as the aging dictator looked on. What a fitting end to a savage year.



Freedom House



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