Relatives cram Kazakh court for riot trial verdict
June 4. Reuters. AKTAU
By Dmitry Solovyov
* Verdicts expected on Monday
* Test for Kazakh authorities after stability shattered
* Policemen, rioters convicted in earlier trials
Relatives of 37 protesters accused of rioting in a Kazakh oil town crammed into a makeshift courtroom on Monday to await the verdicts in the largest trial relating to the deadly December clashes.
The defendants stand accused of participating in riots that killed at least 14 people and saw police use live rounds. The violence posed the most serious challenge to President Nursultan Nazarbayev in more than two decades of power and shattered the Central Asian state’s reputation for stability.
The riots in the western town of Zhanaozen erupted on the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union and followed a months-long protest by oil workers who had been fired after going on strike in an attempt to win higher wages.
Kazakh authorities say police were forced to resort to lethal force on Dec. 16 after being attacked by violent protesters, including the sacked workers. Under scrutiny from the West, they have pledged to hold a fair investigation.
Many residents of Zhanaozen and regional capital Aktau say authorities failed to address the strikers’ grievances and question why police opened fire.
“My son was in the square because he wanted to make sure his children did not go hungry,” Gulnar Karakulova, the 57-year-old mother of one of the defendants, said outside a youth centre where the trial is being held. “He did not take part in any disorder.”
Her son is among those accused of crimes including mass disorder, arson, destruction of property and the use of violence against law enforcement officials.
The trial in Aktau, which has been open to the public, began on March 27. On Monday, relatives jostled for seats in the overcrowded courtroom more than an hour before proceedings began, and many shouted out the names of loved ones as the accused were brought in.
The defendants, escorted inside by policemen armed with pistols and truncheons, stood in a glass box.
SERIES OF TRIALS
Nazarbayev, a 71-year-old former steelworker in power since Soviet times, has prioritised economic growth over democratic freedoms. The $185 billion Kazakh economy is Central Asia’s largest and the country is the largest ex-Soviet oil producer after Russia.
Members of Kazakhstan’s marginalised political opposition accuse authorities of stifling dissent in the country of 16.7 million people. Opposition politicians Bolat Abilov and Amirzhan Kosanov were applauded as they arrived in the courtroom and shook hands with relatives of the accused.
Judge Aralbai Nagashybayev is expected to deliver the verdicts on Monday.
The trial is the largest of four related to the two days of violence in the western Kazakh region of Mangistau, including proceedings for police officers convicted of abusing their power.
On May 28, five policemen, including the deputy police chief for Mangistau, were jailed for between five and seven years.
The head of a detention centre in Zhanaozen was sentenced to five years in jail on May 17 for holding people illegally and failing to allow timely medical care for a 50-year-old detainee who later died in hospital.
In a separate case relating to protesters, six people were convicted on May 21 and six more cleared of rioting in the village of Shetpe, where a passenger train was stopped and set ablaze the day after the Zhanaozen clashes. One protester died of gunshot wounds in Shetpe.