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Facts Prove Elusive After Kazakstan Killings

Several investigations under way, but little light shed on what really happened.
By IWPR Central Asia
  • Andrei Grishin of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. (Photo courtesy A. Grishin)
    Andrei Grishin of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. (Photo courtesy A. Grishin)

Nearly a month after the bloodshed in the town of Janaozen in western Kazakstan, the authorities have arrested 20 people and a several commissions are looking into the violence.

Sixteen demonstrators were killed and more than 100 were injured on December 16, when Kazak police opened fire on protesting oil industry workers. Another man was killed in the nearby village of Shetpe the following day, when police fired into a smaller protest. A state of emergency in Janaozen will last until the end of January.

Witnesses say police in the town opened fire indiscriminately, and footage posted on YouTube appears to show confirm this. The police themselves maintain that they were forced to defend themselves.

Rights groups have raised concerns about the mistreatment of individuals detained after the violence, and the New York-based Human Rights Watch claims that one detainee has died, apparently from injuries sustained in custody. The government denied mistreating detainees.

Amidst these contradictory accounts, seven government and independent inquiries are examining the events and aftermath of the violence.

On the government side, Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeev, the presidential party Nur Otan and the labour and welfare ministry are all running separate investigations, in addition to the official probe by the interior ministry and prosecution service.

Three independent commissions have also been established, made up of opposition leaders, journalists, trade unions and NGO workers.

IWPR asked Andrei Grishin, a staff member of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, for his assessment of the situation, and the progress of the various investigations.

Andrei Grishin: Considering that [during the violence] the town was practically cut off from the outside world, one can imagine that a lot of things were going on there.

According to the first journalists who managed to get there, and judging by the videos posted on the internet, it is possible to imagine how detainees have been treated.

Members of one of the investigative commissions visited the locations where detainees were being held [on January 6]. They did not report incidents of torture. But three days are sufficient to pressure people into not talking about things, if they want to avoid suffering something worse.

The commission’s members reported seeing bruises on one of the detainees. The rest can only be guessed at. There is at least one confirmed death from the torture of an innocent person.

IWPR: What difficulties are relatives of the detainees facing?

Grishin: When a person is detained, it hasn’t been clear what [government] body was responsible for this. Even before December 16, law enforcement agencies could do what they wanted [in Janaozen], and the prosecutor’s office did not respond to complaints from the public. I am more than convinced that since the disturbances, the human rights situation has deteriorated.

IWPR: Has it become easier for the media to cover the situation on the ground?

There is a state of emergency in Janaozen. Under such circumstances, of course, the work of a journalist becomes very difficult. In the days when the town was cut off, it was easy [for officials] to “explain” to residents what they could and couldn’t discuss.

What’s more, in addition to the stick there is also the carrot. The authorities have offered substantial amounts of money to the families of victims.

IWPR: It's been reported that police are trying to locate the people who filmed the shooting of protesters. Are those who posted footage on the internet being persecuted?

Grishin: The police are continuing to look for people who filmed footage from their homes [using mobile phones] and it’s hard to say what exactly they will do to them. But on the other hand, what crime can they be accused of?

IWPR: What is your view on the work of the commissions that have been set up to investigate?

There are six commissions [aside from the interior ministry investigation], but half of them are loyal to the authorities. None of them has drawn any serious conclusions so far.

What was required was an immediate investigation right after the events. But it’s very likely... that the authorities have had “confidential” chats with local residents.

Judging by the authorities’ reaction to the visit by opposition representatives [as part of their investigation]... they have something to hide.

As a rule, any alternative account of the situation – either from Janaozen or Shetpe – is going to differ from the official version.

IWPR: In your view, how well are the authorities handling the aftermath?

Grishin: There have been a lot of statements, the majority of them calling for a thorough investigation. But in my view, the most significant of the statements made by officials – and these are quite contradictory – show that those in power are at a complete loss about what to do.

The Kazak president [Nursultan Nazarbayev] has acknowledged that the oil workers’ demands were largely legitimate, and what’s more, he said that they are our citizens.... At the same time, though, he admitted that he did not know exactly was happening in Janaozen. It seems strange that the head of state was unaware of it.

The compensation payouts of one million tenge [nearly 7,000 US dollar] to the families of those who died is a sign of [the authorities] acknowledging responsibility.

But at the same time, the political adviser to the president, Yermuhamet Yertysbayev... has said that he finds it difficult to describe people who took part in the Janaozen events as fully-fledged citizens of Kazakstan.

He claimed the violence was instigated by Kazaks returning from neighbouring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. who are now threatening Kazakstan’s stability.

Everyone is trying to avoid responsibility and place the blame on someone else.

Although a criminal investigation has been launched into the use of firearms, it is doubtful that anyone will be held accountable. If the police are prosecuted, they might be reluctant to follow orders in future.

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