|Date||16–17 December 2011|
|Location||Mangystau Province, Kazakhstan|
|Goals||Repayment of wages, political reforms|
|Methods||Demonstrations, riots, strike actions, vandalism|
|Result||Reshuffling of energy sector leadership|
The Zhanaozen massacre took place in Kazakhstan's western Mangystau Province over the weekend of 16–17 December 2011. At least 14 protestors were killed by police in the oil town of Zhanaozen clashed with police on the country's Independence Day, with unrest spreading to other towns in the oil-rich oblast, or province.
Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has grown richer from oil revenues. The country also has earned itself a reputation for stability in Central Asia. Kazakhstan's democratic record, however, is very poor. Widespread corruption, electoral fraud, and violation of human rights are some of the most serious problems.
Zhanaozen has been described as “a one-industry town...centered on the ageing oilfield of Uzen”. In May 2011, workers from the Ozenmunaigas oil field went on strike for unpaid danger money, higher wages and better working conditions. The strike was declared illegal by local courts and the state oil company fired nearly 1000 employees. Some of the sacked workers then started a round-the-clock occupation of the town square in protest, demanding better union representation and recognition of workers' rights. The strike continued for months without official interference. According to Radio Free Europe, the protest expanded, “with demonstrators furious over what they saw as a stranglehold on collective bargaining and labor rights by the government.” In mid-December, some workers in the square began calling for the right to form independent political parties free of the government's influence.
December 16, 2011
On 16 December, there were clashes between protesters and police who were attempting to evict them from the square in preparation for an Independence Day celebration. Activists claimed security officers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. Authorities claimed that "bandits" infiltrated the protesters and began the riots first, producing video to support their version of events. Eleven were killed, according to government officials, though opposition sources put the death toll in the dozens. General Prosecutor Askhat Daulbayev claimed that "civilians, who had gathered in the main square to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the country's independence, were attacked by a group of hooligans". The Kazakh opposition TV channel K-Plus showed the beginning of the unrest, as men purported to be oil workers ran on the stage, tipped over the speakers and pushed around civilians before police arrived. In the disturbances which followed, local government offices, a hotel and an office of the state oil company were set on fire, according to Daulbayev. Eighty-six people were injured in the clashes, according to officials. Due to a shortage of hospital beds in Zhanaozen, many were taken to be treated in Aktau, around 150 km away.
Testimony of victims and witnesses
Observers described people “running and falling, running and falling” and police “showering the people with bullets.” One witness said: “Usually it's only in the movies that you see lines of soldiers with their weapons at the ready....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.”
President Nazarbayev visited Mangystau Province several days after the initial eruption of unrest. He said on December 22, while in Aktau, that he would fire his son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, over his handling of the crisis. Kulibayev was head of Kazakhstan's sovereign-wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, which manages many state assets, including the energy company KazMunaiGas.
Nazarbayev fired several local officials to punish them for their roles in the massacre. Also, police officers charged with firing at protesters were arrested. In addition, the regional governor resigned, and Nazarbayev replaced him with a former minister of the interior. Nazarbayev also fired the heads of the national oil company, Kazmunaigaz (KMG) and its production unit. On December 26, he carried out his promise to dismiss his son-in-law, who had been widely viewed as his likely successor. Nazarbayev also subjected Zhanaozen to a 20-day curfew and state of emergency.
On January 9, 2012, it was reported that six Kazakh government bodies, “including the public commission, the government's body composed of civilian volunteers and officials, and several others set up by the authorities,” were conducting investigations of the Zhanaozen massacre. Kazakh authorities claimed that they had asked the UN to participate in the investigations, but a spokesman for the office of the secretary-general said that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had not “been invited or requested to help investigate.”
A trial of protesters began in Aktau in May 2012. Many defendants complained that they had been physically abused, and some even tortured, while in police custody and during interrogation. Some witnesses also claimed they had been threatened by police into giving false testimony. Several opposition figures were arrested in connection with the protests, including journalist Zhanbolat Mamay, politician Serik Sapargali, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan leader Vladimir Kozlov, and theater director Bolat Atabaev. Human Rights Watch protested the arrests, stating that "If the Kazakh authorities can prove these political activists were involved in the violence in Zhanaozen, they shouldn’t need to resort to using vague and undefined criminal allegations to imprison them ... The 'inciting social discord' charge should be dropped immediately and those against whom there is no evidence of any violent activity should be released from custody." Anti-censorship group ARTICLE 19 described the charges as "spurious" and "alarming", warning that the arrests of Atabaev and others would have "a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Kazakhstan". Amnesty International described the charge against Atabaev as "trumped-up", designating him a prisoner of conscience, "detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression".
Two further trials of security officials are currently taking place. In one, 5 police officers are accused of shooting demonstrators. In the other, the former chief of a police detention centre in Zhanaozen is being prosecuted in relation to the death of a suspect who was allegedly beaten to death.
In the media
Popular Kazakh singer Bavyrjan released a song which openly criticised president Nazarbayev for not listening to the complaints of Zhanaozen's demonstrating workers. The song was banned by the government.
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