Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Protesters Demand Accountability for Killings

After talks with top official, they say they won’t be bought off.
By Almaz Rysaliev
  • Riot unit patrols Janaozen. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)
    Riot unit patrols Janaozen. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)
  • The building of Ozenmunaigaz, the oil company that sacked many of the people now protesting, was set on fire during the December 16 violence. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)
    The building of Ozenmunaigaz, the oil company that sacked many of the people now protesting, was set on fire during the December 16 violence. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)
  • Police in Aktau, where protests against the Janaozen deaths continue. (Photo courtesy of Respublika news site
    Police in Aktau, where protests against the Janaozen deaths continue. (Photo courtesy of Respublika news site

The Kazak government has entered into talks with oil industry workers following the violence of recent days in which police opened fire on demonstrators in the western town of Janaozen. But the strikers say they will not be bought off, and are pressing for those behind the shootings to be held to account.

Officials say 14 people, most of them protesters, were killed when police opened fire on crowds in the town centre on December 16. Some 70 people were detained. Another man died in the nearby village of Shetpe the following day when police opened fire on a smaller protest.

A state of emergency was imposed in Janaozen and will last until January 5.

On December 20, First Deputy Prime Minister Omurzak Shukeev, who is heading up a government commission on Janaozen, met representatives of the protesters in Aktau, the regional centre of Mangistau region.

The dispute began as an industrial dispute over pay and conditions in several parts of western Kazakstan in May. In Janaozen, the strikers staged daily protests which did not stop when their company sacked them.

According to the press office of the Mangistau provincial administration, the authorities are now offering the protesters alternative jobs, either within the region or elsewhere in the country. They may be offered temporary public-sector jobs until a more definitive solution can be found.

However, the talks were inconclusive.

The protesters insisted they wanted their old jobs back, not an alternative.

Janar Kasymbekova, a reporter for the Respublika online newspaper, said the workers were told to put the recent unhappy events behind them and they would get good jobs, plus wage compensation for the months they have spent protesting.

“They said Shukeev’s proposal to find them employment was no more than an attempt to buy them out,” Kasymbekova said.

Instead, both workers who are still in jobs and those who were dismissed because of the strike are demanding that the authorities account for the Janaozen violence.

They have called for three days of official mourning for those killed in Janaozen, and insisted that those responsible for the shootings should be brought to book. They also want compensation for the families of the dead and injured.  

Meanwhile, the authorities have stuck to their version of what happened – that police only fired in self-defence, and that the violence was stirred up by a group of provocateurs rather than ordinary demonstrators. (See Kazak Spin Doctors Explain Police Shootings on this.)

The protesters have been given one week to consider the government’s offer before talks resume.

After the violence, a non-government commission was formed by opposition members, media and NGO representatives and other leading public figures. They set off from Aktau to visit Janaozen on December 21, and Kasymbekova accompanied them, but they were turned back on the road before they got there.

Kasymbekova said the town authorities in Janaozen appeared to be in denial about events of recent days. The trouble started on December 16 when protestors who had occupied the central Yntymak Square for months tried to prevent a stage being erected for Kazakstan Independence Day celebrations that day. Local residents told her they “found it strange that the authorities decided to set up tents for the festivities right in the middle of the square, since in previous years they used to be placed around it for occasions like this”.

Kasymbekova added, “Officials in Janaozen are refusing to resign, insisting again and again that they acted within the law. The authorities are still backing away from establishing a constructive dialogue with the protesters. That suggests they havent learned the right lessons from what has happened.”

She said she feared that the official response would be to identify culprits and punish them.

When she first managed to get into Janaozen on January 17, Kasymbekova reported that police were rounding up any men they found on the streets. (See Police Round Up Men After Janaozen Violence,)

She interviewed a woman called Sandugash Amanjolova whose husband was taken away by police while they were both in the town centre on December 16. Her husband is not an oil worker, but works as a security guard for a local company, and had no part in the protests.

He was taken to Janaozen police station and Amanjolova has not heard from him since. She and and around 70 other women went to the police station, and she claims they heard the voices of men crying out from a basement, apparently in pain.

“Now Janazoen is effectively under the control of military,” Kasymbekova said.

Kasymbekova reports that in Aktau, several hundred oil workers have gathered daily near the main city square but were prevented from entering it by the 1,000 to 1,500 members of the armed security forces who were occupying it.

“They gather towards midday and leave in the evening,” Kasymbekova said, adding that around 100 members of the security forces stayed overnight to control the square.

“The official media have reported that there are drunk and disorderly hooligans people among the protesters. That is not true. I personally have not seen one drunk or anyone disturbing public order. What is surprising is how organised and united they are.

“Today Aktau is fairly quiet. There are no problems getting food, the shops are working as usual, and prices haven’t gone up.”

Almaz Rysaliev is IWPR editor in Kazakstan.

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