I am writing to express Human Rights Watch’s profound concern about several issues related to the December 16 and 17 events in Zhanaozen and Shetpe. These include allegations about excessive use of lethal force by law enforcement, ill-treatment and torture of detainees taken into custody following the December 16 violence in Zhanaozen, allegations of theft and extortion by police officers, and arrests of oil workers and labor and political activists charged in connection with the violence.
Any government has a duty to provide public order, thoroughly investigate incidents of violence –such as the rampaging, looting, and arson that took place in Zhanaozen –and punish perpetrators. But in doing so it must comply with standards for the protection of human rights set out in international law. We acknowledge steps the government has taken to restore order in Zhanaozen, including immediately opening an investigation into the clashes. Human Rights Watch welcomed President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s December 17 statement that Kazakhstan’s investigation would be thorough and could include independent experts, as well as the Prosecutor General’s office’s announcement that a criminal investigation into police use of force and abuse of power had been initiated on December 27, 2011.
Human Rights Watch also welcomed comments made by President Nazarbaev on December 17, in which he drew a clear distinction between the December 16 clashes and the peaceful industrial labor dispute that had been ongoing in Zhanaozen since May 2011.
On January 25, 2012 the Prosecutor General issued a statement on progress in the investigations. The statement acknowledges that “in some cases the use of weapons and special devices by police was of disproportional character, [and their] reaction to the acts of the attackers was unequal to the threat, thus leading to the death and injuries of people,” and that several law enforcement officials from the Department of Internal Affairs of Mangystau province will face criminal charges for abuse of power. These are positive developments.
However, Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned that all allegations of serious human rights violations perpetrated by Kazakh law enforcement authorities, including serious ill-treatment of those detained in the aftermath of the December 16 violence have yet to be fully and impartially investigated. This concern is based on official statements and media reports on developments in Zhanaozen; Human Rights Watch interviews with town residents, oil workers, and medical personnel in Zhanaozen on December 28 and 29; as well as telephone interviews over the past month with oil workers, town residents, journalists who travelled to Zhanaozen, and Kazakh civil society activists who have been closely following the developments.
Human Rights Watch urges the government of Kazakhstan to ensure that the continuing investigations into the Zhanaozen violence are carried out in a thorough and impartial manner and that those responsible, including all those in an official capacity, are held accountable in line with international fair trial norms. We also call on the government to ensure that oil workers are not targeted in retribution for their participation in strikes last year.We urge you to ensure in particular that investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody are conducted, are thorough and impartial, and the perpetrators are identified and brought to justice. We also call on the authorities to end any attempts by law enforcement in Zhanaozen to silence victims and witnesses of violations. Finally, we urge you to allow journalists and human rights activists unfettered access to Zhanaozen.
Police Use of Force and Firearms
In his statement on January 25, the Prosecutor General claimed that the investigation to date has determined that 64persons sustained gunshot wounds and 14persons died (the deaths of two others were allegedly unconnected to the violence). It is not clear from the statement whether the investigative commission has determined that all the gunshot injuries and deaths were the result of use of force by law enforcement, but the statement makes no reference to any individuals other than law enforcement being held accountable for wounding by firearms.
The Prosecutor General’s office opened an investigation on December 27, under article 308, part 4b of Kazakhstan’s criminal code into “abuse of power with use of weapons or special equipment.” The statement indicates that the following persons will face some form of criminal charges in connection with the police actions including use of force on that day:
Deputy head of the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) of Mangystau province Utegaliev;
Head of the anti-extremist division of the DIA of Mangystau province Bagdabaev;
First deputy head of the Office of the Internal Affairs of the town of Zhanaozen Bakytkaliuly;
Police inspector of DIA of Mangystau province Zholdybaev.
Human Rights Watch welcomes the progress that has been made in investigating the use of force by law enforcement on December 16, but we remind the authorities that the continuing efforts must include an effective investigation into each of the 14 deaths and 64 wounded persons. These investigations should be capable of leading to the identification of all law enforcement officers responsible for any injury or death with a view to holding them accountable. A full account of how each person was wounded or killed should be made public.
In the course of research conducted by Human Rights Watch several witnesses we interviewed described circumstances that suggest Kazakh security forces did not adhere to international norms on the use of force in response to violence in Zhanaozen on December 16.
While the Prosecutor General concedes that in some cases the use of force that led to the deaths and injuries in Zhanaozen was disproportionate, it is important that the investigations team examine whether the state agents’ use of force was justified and lawful under human rights law, so as to determine what human rights violations have occurred. In doing so, the team should assess whether the police met standards for the use of force set out by The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles state authorities may use lethal force only as a last resort and with restraint. They require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to the extent possible, to use non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and with preservation of human life respected. The Basic Principles also state that “Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”
Regarding the lethal force used in Zhanaozen, an initial statement by the Prosecutor General’s spokesperson on December 17 implied that that police used lethal force as a last resort and with a legitimate objective. The spokesman said:
Taking into consideration that, despite warning shots, the mob continued to attack police officers, with the aim of protecting the life and health of peaceful residents—that is, staff of the akimiat and law enforcement officers who had been seized–as well as to prevent arms falling into the hands of the hooligans, police were forced to use their service weapons, the result of which the active participants of the riots were wounded.
Similarly, on December 18, with respect to clashes in Shetpe, the spokesperson for the Prosecutor General’s office stated: “Taking into consideration that the actions of the hooligans seriously threatened the life and health of peaceful citizens and police officers, the police were forced to use arms.” On January 25, the Prosecutor General asserted that in Zhanaozen “in most cases police officers acted in accordance with the law under a real threat to the lives and health both of the civilians as well as the police officers themselves,” and in Shetpe, that “[t]he investigation had come to the decision that in this case the use of weapons was legal.”
Human Rights Watch is concerned that a determination that resort to lethal force was justified may be premature.
Lethal Force as Last Resort
The investigation will need to establish whether all possible non-lethal means were exhausted before police used their weapons.
According to government statements, police fired warning shots into the air before shooting at individuals. It is unknown whether police attempted to orally warn people, in a manner that could be heard, that lethal force would be used if they did not disperse and desist from violence. In fact, several individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated no attempt was made to use any other means to disperse the crowds before the police opened live fire on civilians, nor did any official statements or media reports allege that they did so. Other options to which police can resort in such situations include non-lethal force such as batons, tear gas, and water cannons, and it is not clear whether any of these options were made available to the police and used prior to resorting to lethal force.
In a telephone interview on December 21, one oil worker described to Human Rights Watch how unarmed oil workers remained on the square after police fled following the initial clashes:
When we were standing in the middle of [the central square]…at that time, from the other side a chain was walking – a detachment of police. They were ready to fight. They walked …in a chain, in step, and just began to shoot at people, not looking at anyone, at whether they were passersby, hooligans or someone else. They didn’t look; they didn’t give any warning; they immediately started to shoot using live bullets. And people started to fall.
Another eyewitness similarly told Human Rights Watch that police fired on the crowd after initial clashes on the square on December 16:
About an hour later, from the side [of town] where the hospital is, in the 5th micro-district, from there about 50 or 60 police [appeared] with shields that have “police” written on them… I saw that they’re shooting. I thought they were blanks, or…rubber bullets. …But no, I saw that they’re not blanks, not rubber bullets, but live cartridges. I looked around and a guy had been hit in the leg already. He screamed out. There was a man near him, an older man who was disabled, they grabbed him and hit him with truncheons (dubinki). Before my eyes, they shot a guy, he died….They shot at passersby, do you understand?
Preservation of Human Life
The nature of the wounds to some individuals on December 16 ground Human Rights Watch’s concern that in using lethal force police may not have taken care to ensure “minimal damage and injury, and with preservation of human life respected.” We documented one case in which an individual was seriously wounded in the face, and are aware of at least four other cases that involve gunshot wounds to the head or neck.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a woman, Gaukhar G. [not her real name], who said that her husband was shot by police while on the way to the mosque on December 16. She said her husband told her that a group of five or six riot police jumped out of a car and started to shoot their automatic weapons in her husband’s direction:
He was shot in the cheek. He was running along the side of the building and a bullet hit his left cheek, knocked out all of his upper teeth, cracked his jaw, went down and exited from his lower jaw. It broke his lower jaw and twisted his lower lip. He fell face forward. He noticed that a man lying near him was shot in the forehead, dead. Then he passed out.
Another man, Nurlybek Nurgaliev, told Radio Azattyk, the Kazakh branch of US government-funded Radio Liberty, that he had been shot on December 16, and that the bullet entered through his throat and lodged in the shoulder area.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed a hospital worker who confirmed to Human Rights Watch that three individuals were brought into the hospital on December 16 with gunshot wounds to the head. The worker told Human Rights Watch:
A woman died from a gunshot wound in her head and neck. According to the medical records, Zhanar Tazhiganieva, born in 1973, died on December 17. She was brought in on the 16th with a gunshot wound to the neck and injury to the base of her skull….There were two other men who [died] from gunshot wounds – one here and one in Aktau. Ubazbai Mambetnazarov, born 1966—from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He died here. And Rakhat Kusherov was taken to Aktau and he died there from a gunshotwoundto the mouthand damage to the upper spinal cord.
In a number of statements, including the statement of January 25, the Prosecutor General’s office accused some members of the crowd of having firearms and claimed that police were forced to use their weapons because the life and health of peaceful citizens were under threat. However several factors suggest that the lethal force used was not proportionate to the threat posed, a fact acknowledged in the January 25 statement.
All individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that people on the central square in Zhanaozen were unarmed. According to the hospital worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Zhanaozen, none of the six police officers brought to the hospital had gunshot wounds. The January 25 statement says that 35 officers received injuries, but does not state the nature or extent of these injuries, or that any were gunshot wounds. Second, there exists a significant discrepancy between civilian and police causalities. The hospital worker told Human Rights Watch that 99 people were registered by the hospital, 75 of whom had gunshot wounds, all of whom were civilians. The Prosecutor General’s office acknowledges that at least 64 persons sustained gunshot wounds.
Allegations of Torture and Ill-treatment in Police Custody
Authorities detained hundreds of people on December 16 and in the days immediately thereafter. According to official data made public to date, between December 16 and 17, police detained 70 “more active participants in the mass riots and looting” in Zhanaozen, followed by another 60 who were detained for violating curfew, “amongst whom are persons suspected with participation in the mass riots and looting.”However, on December 19, at least one journalist saw lists of detainees totaling more than 700 people posted outside the Zhanaozen central police station. The lists indicated that more than 400 detainees would face criminal or administrative charges and the rest would be released.
While in Zhanaozen on December 28 and 29, Human Rights Watch researchers spoke to several people who witnessed or were subjected to physical abuse by police in custody between December 16 and 19. These individuals described how police variously kicked and beat with truncheons, stripped naked and walked on, and subjected to freezing temperatures detainees who had been brought into custody starting December 16. Human Rights Watch also documented the death of Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, 50, who was detained by police on December 16, held in custody until December 18, and who died on December 22 from injuries apparently sustained in custody.
On December 29, a Public Monitoring Commission (PMC) comprised of civil society activists from across Kazakhstan and a representative of Prison Reform International (PRI) conducted a visit to the temporary detention facility (IVS) and the spetspriemnik, a detention facility for persons under administrative arrest, in Zhanaozen. On December 30, a member of the PMC, Serik Tenizbaev, separately visited the detention facility in Aktau. Following his visit Mr. Tenizbaev prepared a short report on his findings and this report was sent to the Prosecutor General’s office. In this report, Mr. Tenizbaev stated:
Many of the detainees reported ill-treatment by law enforcement officials at the time they were brought to the GUVD in Zhanaozen and to the the Mangystau ROVD in Shetpe. Four individuals [three from Zhanaozen, one from Shetpe] expressed their desire to speak to me individually…. In the words of the detainees, first, OMON officers beat them with truncheons, legs and automatic weapons as they passed through a double-sided corridor [of police officers]. Then, in the offices, investigators forced them to undress, humiliated them in various ways and scared them with service weapons, coercing confessions.
The allegations of mistreatment in detention in Zhanaozen are consistent with patterns of torture and ill-treatment in Kazakhstan documented by other international groups, including the United Nations and Amnesty International. In a December 2009 report, for example, the UN special rapporteur on torture concluded after a visit to Kazakhstan that “evidence obtained through torture (including threats) or ill-treatment is commonly used as a basis for conviction.” The report said the UN received “many credible allegations of beatings with hands and fists, plastic bottles filled with sand and police truncheons, and of kicking, asphyxiation through plastic bags and gas masks used to obtain confessions from suspects.”
The Prosecutor General’s statement of January 25 does not reference investigations into these broader allegations of unlawful ill-treatment in detention. This is of particular concern in light of the claim in the statement that, of the 34 persons who had been arrested for participating in “mass disorder” or arson and looting, “most of them confirmed the fact of organizing and participating in insurgencies” and that “in particular, they stated that they have been preparing for the insurgencies in advance.” The implication that “most” persons “confessed” and allegations that police officers coerced confessions through beatings and humiliating treatment in detention raises questions about the circumstances in which all the alleged confessions were obtained, and whether they were voluntary.
Human Rights Watch calls on the authorities to provide information on the alleged confessions of those arrested: who those arrested are, what statements were made, how long the individuals had been in custody before they confessed, and whether they had access to legal counsel, had been visited by a relative or friend, and had been examined by a doctor whilst in custody.
On December 22, Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, 50, died from wounds apparently sustained while he was in police custody between December 16 and 18. Kenzhebaev, from a neighboring village, was in Zhanaozen on December 16 to be with his daughter, who had just given birth. Police arrested him at about 5 p.m. while he was walking the short distance between his daughter’s house and the maternity hospital and brought him to the Zhanaozen Main Police Department.He was released after he was repeatedly and severely beaten by law enforcement agents in custody.
On December 28, six days after Kenzhebaev died, a relative interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that after Kenzhebaev had been released from custody, “[he] explained everything, in those three days he was at home and dying. Everything that happened to him.” Kenzhebaev described to his family how when he was detained, he was thrown onto a bus and beaten, and how he was forced to walk through two lines of police officers who beat him all the way up and down from the basement to the third floor of the police station where he was questioned.
Kenzhebaev’s relative described in detail the torture Kenzhebaev endured:
They started to beat [him] with truncheons (dubinki) as soon as he was loaded up [onto the bus], then dragged through the lines [of police], then, when they dragged [him] to the basement of the GOVD, they made [him] undress and right in the basement, lie face down on the floor. They lay there, and the OMON walked on them with their boots and beat them, they especially stepped on [his] head, so that [his] face would hit the floor.
Kenzhebaev told his relative that he was taken to “the garage” where the floor had been covered in ankle-deep water, and that the detainees were made to sit in a squat position in this freezing water with their hands behind their heads.
Kenzhebaev’s relative also told Human Rights Watch that he was terrified he would be detained again, so would not go to the hospital after he was released on the 18th. She described his suffering: “By the evening of the 21st, he was in terrible shape. He was retching blood…he was covered in bruises, it hurt to lie down, everything hurt.” On December 21 Kenzhebaev was rushed to the hospital, but the doctors were unable to save him. His official cause of death was given as “rupture of the small intestine and blunt abdominal trauma.”
These accounts are consistent with an interview Kenzhebaev gave Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Kostyuchenko on December 19, before he died, in which he detailed the abuse to which he was subjected.
In his January 25 statement the Prosecutor General says that the authorities are holding the head of the Zhanaozen temporary detention facility of the Office of Internal Affairs accountable for “allow[ing] illegal detention of Kenzhebaev and not arranging timely hospitalization,” but is continuing to investigate who is responsible for ordering and carrying out the beatings that lead to Kenzhebaev’s death.
This is progress on the statement issued on December 22 by the Prosecutor General’s office, which claimed that Kenzhebaev died “at home” from wounds inflicted “during the mass disturbances.” The Prosecutor General’s office had also erroneously claimed that Kenzhebaev was taken to the hospital but refused hospitalization and was released on December 16.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that the history of the Prosecutor General’s office making erroneous and premature claims in relation to how Kenzhebaev died and who is responsible, indicates an unwillingness to examine the full scope and circumstances of his death. In investigating who is responsible for his beatings, Human Rights Watch notes that witnesses claim that many police were lined up to carry out beatings of detainees when they were taken from the basement to the upper floors of the police station for questioning, and that Kenzhebaev and others were beaten severely in the basement of the GOVD. It is essential that officers involved in both instances are identified; there should be records indicating all of the officers on duty on between December 16 and 19, and those who would have been responsible for interrogations.
Human Rights Watch is also deeply concerned by claims that prosecutorial officials who questioned three of Kenzhebaev’s family members about his death threatened them. A high-level official from the Prosecutor General’s office told Kenzhebaev’s relatives that the family must not speak to the press or any other organizations, and accused these groups of instigating problems for them. One of the relatives told Human Rights Watch that prosecutorial authorities threatened to sue them if they gave out “incorrect” information.
Asem Kenzhebaeva, Bazarbai Kenzhebaev’s Daughter
Police detained Asem Kenzhebaeva, 21, on December 16 while she was searching for her father and brought her to the Zhanaozen main police station. She described to Human Rights Watch her treatment and the torture and ill-treatment she witnessed at the police station in the night of December 16 and in the early hours of December 17:
Around 9 p.m. I went off to look for [my father]. First I went to the hospital, then the [city police station], then again to the hospital. And the second time I left the hospital, there were some guys standing there. The OMON [riot police] appeared, went after them…[and] detained all of them and me too, even though I wasn’t with them. They threw everyone into an army truck…and it was full of people already. Probably 30 to 40 guys, I couldn’t count…the back of the truck was full. The guys were severely beaten with truncheons (dubinki) and kicked. I was the only girl. When they put me in the back of the truck, they grabbed me by the throat, squeezed my breasts, used their hands to molest me….
Kenzhebaeva told Human Rights Watch that while in the truck, one of the officers, from Aktau, protected her with his shield from being beaten and kicked.
When they arrived at the police station, Kenzhebaeva said, “everyone was kicked out of the bus, the guys were severely beaten again.” She said that police formed a corridor to the entrance of the police station and dragged the young men through beating them the entire time. The men were forced to keep their hands behind their heads and were beaten, and that those who were unable to support themselves were held up by their arms by police while others continued to beat them. She said: “As for me, even though that officer shielded me – I was hit with a truncheon in my back, [and] for a day standing or sitting was very difficult.”
Police took the detainees to the temporary detention facility (IVS) in the basement of the station.
Kenzhebaeva told Human Rights Watch:
They also pushed me there. In the corridor of the IVS, at the very beginning, there was a mountain of clothes. And later, on the floor of the basement, men lay completely naked with their faces down and there was blood everywhere. Everyone was beaten up. Blood didn’t drip out of them like when you have a nose bleed – it was pouring; there were puddles of blood on the floor. The guys who were brought there with me were made to walk on the [detainees] to the far corner, and the OMON officers walked on the [detainees] behind them. They moved me into another corner in the corridor. There were undressed women standing there, just in their underwear, their arms covering their breasts. Six or seven women. They were covered in bruises, were swollen, crying and screaming.
Temir T. [not his real name]
On December 28, Temir T., a Zhanaozen resident and oil worker, met with Human Rights Watch and described how on December 18, riot police officers detained him in the center of town and subjected him to ill-treatment in custody. Throughout the interview Temir T. showed extreme worry and fear, repeating several times that the authorities made it clear that if he tried to complain or speak to the media he would be imprisoned.
Temir T. said that after he was detained:
[The police] immediately started beating me and threw me into a KAMAZ [a truck]. There were other detainees there. They took us to “the garage” behind the GOVD [police station]. The cold was horrible. There was ankle-deep water on the floor…which was bare. They made us squat. They took away our shoes. And our bare legs froze.
Temir T. told Human Rights Watch that he was accused of looting even though he claimed he was not involved:
Every now and then five or ten people at a time would be taken up for questioning… [Y]ou could hear how in other rooms people were screaming, and your heart just shakes. The investigator said that I was involved in looting and that they’ll work up a case against me. They worked up cases against the rest as well. I didn’t do anything of the sort – they just made it up.
According to a December 29 statement issued by the Prosecutor General’s office, a commission was established to consider complaints concerning illegal detentions of Zhanaozen residents and allegations of ill-treatment and torture. According to the Prosecutor General’s office, commission members were provided a list of detainees arrested and of administrative detainees and permitted access to the temporary detention center. The statement says:
The members of the commission spoke with the detainees, personally inspected the conditions of their detention, and found them to be in a normal state of health… This work allowed the members of the commission to render groundless rumors of illegal detentions, their abuse and of murder.
Kenzhebaeva told Human Rights Watch that after her father passed away, she visited the detention center with a commission, though it is not known whether it was the same commission referred to above in the government statement. She told Human Rights Watch: “everything, everything was cleaned away. Not a drop of blood was left.”
Allegations of Theft and Extortion by Police
Human Rights Watch also documented allegations of extortion and robbery by police officers of residents in the days following the violence. Three individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch alleged that on December 18 and 19 police stole money and other personal property from them and/or that they witnessed police stealing the property of others. Two of these interviewees further alleged that if individuals whose belongings were taken from them tried to protest, the police threatened to detain them and charge them with looting.
Temir. T. told Human Rights Watch that when he was in custody he witnessed how riot police, particularly those who seemed to be from other regions of Kazakhstan, stole personal property of detainees: “They took everything away from people – mobile phones, wedding rings, signet rings, money, as much as people had. They took my hat, they liked it… and also [my] money of course…and also my mobile phone, like everyone else.”
Zhanna Zh. [not her real name], a housewife, said that police stole items from three of her acquaintances:
[The OMON] Just like that, on the spot, they attacked people on the street, in general, without reason. Detained them, took away their phones, money, valuables if they had any. Just try to protest. They’ll immediately detain you, take you to the police, work up a case against you, that you were involved in looting. People gave away everything. Three of my acquaintances were stopped like that on the 18th-19th, they took everything – but they were happy that they could walk away, as hundreds of people were detained.
Ulan U. [not his real name] told Human Rights Watch:
I went to Aktau on the 18th to take out money [because the ATMs in Zhanoazen had been attacked] and then I returned home. I was in my car… I parked it in the yard, and these OMON officers walked up to me. They started to shake me, demanding [identification] documents. I gave them my passport. They turned out my pockets and there was my wallet with 80,000 tenge [US$540]. They took all my money. I said ‘What are you doing? That’s robbery!’ And they said to me: ‘You think you’re so smart? If you complain, we’ll throw you in the car and write you up as a looter, you want that?’ I gave it all and left.
Arrests of Oil Workers and Activists
On December 22, President Nazarbaev made a public statement in Zhanaozen about measures that would be taken to restore order, including key changes to regional administration and management of the oil company OzenMunaiGas. President Nazarbaev was quoted in the media as saying:
‘The workers’ demands were, in general, justified. Even if the workers had violated labor discipline, the employers should not have forgotten that those were our citizens. They didn’t come from the moon. They should have listened tothem and, as much as possible, supported them. Unfortunately, this was not done’.
President Nazarbaev was also quoted by media as saying: “Persons who have nothing todo with this work dispute took advantage ofthe complicated situation andorganized mass disorder.”
When he introduced the state of emergency on December 17, President Nazarbaev strongly implied that law enforcement should keep separate the oil workers’ labor dispute and the violence that took place on December 16: “I believe the labor dispute of oil workers must not be mixed in with the acts of bandit elements who sought to abuse the situation in their criminal plots.”
However, there are grounds for concern that in seeking to prosecute those who led and carried out the violence, law enforcement in western Kazakhstan have conflated the peaceful, seven-month long strike with the violent rampage, looting, and arson that took place on December 16.
First, Human Rights Watch is aware that at least three of the six people who have been identified and charged by the Prosecutor General’s office as “organizers of mass disorder” are oil workers who actively participated in the seven-month strike in 2011. They include Talgat Saktaganov and Rosa Tuletaeva, who are two of the most outspoken oil workers and among a handful of workers who assumed leadership roles in the OzenMunaiGas strike after it began in May 2011. Talgat Saktaganov had travelled to Warsaw, Poland in late September 2011 to speak about the strike at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Human Dimensions Implementation Meeting; Rosa Tuletaeva provided commentary and information to the media and international organizations who visited western Kazakhstan throughout the duration of the seven-month strike. The third outspoken oil worker, Maksat Dosmagambetov, was detained on December 20.
According to the January 25 statement by the Prosecutor General’s office, all threeare facing criminal charges under article 241, part 1 of Kazakhstan’s criminal code.
In addition to those named in the Prosecutor General’s statement of January 25, it is stated that “23active participants of mass disorder and11individuals that set fire and looted” had been arrested. Human Rights Watch believes that a number of these detainees were also oil strikers and requests that their identities be made public.
On December 21, Human Rights Watch spoke to Zhanar Saktaganova, one of the oil workers who had been on strike, by telephone as she was being transported to the police station in Zhanaozen. Saktaganova later told Human Rights Watch that she was questioned and released that night after being told she is a suspect in a criminal case on charges of participating in mass riots (article 241, part 2 of Kazakhstan’s criminal code), but has not been summoned for further questioning. Human Rights Watch also received information that at least two other outspoken oil workers have been summoned for questioning in connection with the December 16 violence.
On January 10, Karasai Andyrbaev, a former KarazhanBasMunai oil worker and the husband of first secretary of the Mangystau region branch of the now-suspended Communist Party of Kazakhstan Nuriyash Abdraimova, was temporarily taken into custody after authorities conducted a search of their apartment in Aktau. Abdraimova told Human Rights Watch that the authorities claimed they were looking for weapons and suspected her husband of participating in the unrest in Zhanaozen on December 16, even though Andyrbaev was in Aktau that day. The authorities confiscated Abdraimova’s laptop, some disks, and papers. Andyrbaev was released that evening.
Aizhangul Amirova, activist and member of the political opposition movement The People’s Front, was detained at Aktau airport on the morning of January 6, 2012 on criminal charges of “inciting social discord” under article 164 of Kazakhstan’s criminal code. Amirova’s brother, Yermurat Amirov, told Human Rights Watch that Amirova was first taken to The People’s Front’s office in Aktau, where authorities conducted a search of the premises, and then took her to Zhanaozen. Yermurat Amirov told Human Rights Watch that authorities similarly conducted a search of their mother’s apartment in Zhanaozen the same day. Amirov said the police broke down their front door when neither he nor his mother was at home. He said his personal computer, printer, and several papers were confiscated. On the night of January 8, Amirova was remanded to custody for 10 days and on January 16, a Zhanaozen court sanctioned her arrest for a further two months.
Amirova closely followed the strikes which began in western Kazakhstan in May 2011 and travelled frequently to Aktau and Zhanaozen over the last seven months to support the workers and help raise attention to their demands. While Amirova’s family lives in Zhanaozen and she has a vested interest in the welfare of the community, on December 16, Amirova was in Almaty, far from the unrest and violence that erupted that day.
We respectfully ask that the prosecutor’s office immediately clarify the basis of Amirova’s arrest and drop the charge of “inciting social discord” as it is a vague, overbroad offense and incompatible with fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association. Human Rights Watch also asks that the prosecutor’s office clarify the criminal charges brought against Talgat Saktaganov, Rosa Tuletaeva, and Maksat Dosmagambetov and to ensure that their rights under international law are fully protected.
We also urge the prosecutor’s office to drop all charges against and provide for the immediate release of union lawyer Natalia Sokolova who, like Amirova, was detained and later convicted on charges of “inciting social discord.” Sokolova’s husband, Vassiliy Chepurnoi, told Human Rights Watch on January 24 that her lawyer submitted her appeal to the Supreme Court on January 20. Supreme Court review gives the Kazakh judicial system yet another chance to uphold international standards in her case.
Sokolova was charged in June 2011 for “speaking before the collective [of workers] about disproportionality in wages…,” an act the court found amounted to criminal behavior on August 8, 2011 under the charge “inciting social discord.” She was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment. President Nazarbaev’s recent remarks on the workers’ demands—specifically that “The workers’ demands were, in general, justified”—further calls into question the very basis for her conviction.
On January 23, 2012 Human Rights Watch learned that National Security Committee (KNB) officers conducted a search of the opposition party Alga’s office in Almaty, as well as of the homes of several of Alga party members, including its leader Vladimir Kozlov. Following the searches, four members of the Alga party and two members of the opposition movement The People’s Front were detained or summoned for questioning in connection with the Zhanaozen violence. According to information received by Human Rights Watch, Kozlov was detained on the evening of January 23rd as a suspect in a criminal investigation on charges of “inciting social discord.”
Despite President Nazarbaev’s statement distinguishing the oil strikes and the acts of “bandit elements” on December 16, 2011, the statement issued on January 25 by the Prosecutor General’s office states that the authorities believe that “one of the causes of the mass disorder were the active efforts of some individuals to persuade fired workers to continue their protest action and violently oppose the authorities” and identifies the following individuals as among those who “incit[ed] social discord” – Vladimir Kozlov, Aizhangul Amirova, and Serik Sapargali.
We would welcome information from the Prosecutor General’s office that identifies specific speech and/or actions that substantiate the allegations that these individuals incited the workers to violently oppose the authorities. In addition, we are deeply concerned by the allegation that persuading fired workers to continue their protest action amounts to “inciting social discord;” under international human rights law, this is a legitimate exercise of freedom of speech. Human Rights Watch will be closely monitoring further developments.
The authorities indeed have the duty to investigate criminal behavior and hold perpetrators accountable, but not at the expense of human rights norms under international law. Prosecuting peaceful oil workers and their supporters for their involvement in a strike that served as the backdrop for the December 16 violence raises serious questions about the impartiality and thoroughness of the investigation into the violence.
Regarding the Use of Lethal Force:
The authorities’ investigation into the events/riots in Zhanaozen on December 16 should be conducted in a thorough, impartial, and transparent manner and seek to determine:
Whether the use of force and firearms by the police was consistent with national law and international human rights law and standards, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials;
Who is responsible for each of the deaths and injuries sustained during the violence on December 16 and whether each death or injury was the result of an unlawful act;
Whether the protestors committed criminal acts which provoked a legitimate response from the police, and whether that response was then proportionate;
Why such a large discrepancy exists between security forces and civilian casualties;
Who, if anyone, bears command responsibility for overseeing any operations in which force was found to be excessive.
Regarding Allegations of Torture and Ill-treatment:
Promptly investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and continue to investigate the circumstances leading to Bazarbai Kenzhebaev’s death;
Ensure that law enforcement officers who have allegedly mistreated or tortured detainees are prosecutedand, if found guilty, subjected to appropriate penalties;
Clarify the total number of individuals detained in connection with the December 16 violence;
Clarify the circumstances in which any confessions were obtained from those detained, including information on length of time in custody, access to a lawyer and a doctor.
Regarding Arrests of Oil workers and Activists:
The authorities should be sure to distinguish between the peaceful industrial action that took place in Zhanaozen and the violence, looting, and clashes on December 16.
The authorities should ensure that all detainees currently in custody have access to family members, legal counsel, and medical personnel;
The authorities should ensure that oil workers are not targeted in retribution for their participation in strikes last year;
Aizhangul Amirova, Vladimir Kozlov, and Serik Sapargali should be released immediately and the charges of “inciting social discord” dropped.
We look forward to receiving information regarding the steps that you and your administration will take in response to these concerns.
Sincerely, Hugh Williamson Executive Director Europe and Central Asia Division Human Rights Watch