By Saule Mukhametrakhimova
The start of the trial of 37 defendants accused of involvement in unrest in the western oil town of Janaozen was marred by delays and overcrowding in the courtroom.
Fourteen people died and over 100 were injured when police opened fire on crowds of protesters in the town on December 16. Another person died during unrest in the nearby village of Shetpe.
The defendants – two of them minors, and all but two male – are accused of a variety of criminal offences including arson, robbery, destruction of property and attacking the police. The prosecution has cited over 100 victims, mainly the owners of businesses damaged in arson attacks.
Galym Ageleuov, head of the Kazakstan human rights group Liberty, is observing the trial, and told IWPR that most of the prosecution witnesses are police officers.
The case is being heard in the city of Aktau rather than in Janaozen, 150 kilometres away, because the authorities were concerned about possible trouble in the defendants’ home town.
The start of proceedings on March 27 was delayed by more than five hours when one of the defendants failed to appear – he was unaware that the venue had been changed to a youth centre that provided more space than court premises.
Even so, at least 100 relatives and friends of the defendants were prevented from entering. Ageleuov told IWPR that police limited access to one family member per defendant.
Members of a public commission of inquiry into Janaozen, including opposition politician Bulat Abilov, unsuccessfully petitioned Aktau’s mayor demand to provide a bigger venue.
For some of the relatives who were granted access, it was the first time they had seen the accused since their detentions, and there were emotional scenes in the courtroom.
The accused were ranged along four benches inside a glass cage in the makeshift courtroom. The Janaozen violence stemmed from a long-running oil industry strike, and Aguleuov said the oil workers sat in the front row.
On the first day, some defence lawyers alerted the court to concerns that their clients were assaulted when they were initially detained in December.
The proceedings were generally calm, but Ageleuov told IWPR that relatives of the accused applauded and cheered when one of the victims – a woman whose business is said to have suffered damage valued at over 300,000 US dollars – appeared and said she was withdrawing her complaint and damages claim.
In a Facebook update, Ageleuov said the mood was heavier on day two, as the judge declined defence requests for some of the accused to be granted temporary release on health grounds.
The start of the trial was attended by representatives from the OSCE mission in Kazakstan, the United States embassy, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and other human rights groups, as well as non-government organisations engaged in investigating events in Janaozen.
There were also journalists, including some from opposition newspapers and TV. They were allowed to do some filming before proceedings began, and then followed the trial in a separate room with a TV screen.
Ageleuov said the Aktau trial is part of a wider process relating to Janaozen.
Another group of accused – mainly oil industry activists and opposition members including Alga party leader Vladimir Kozlov, and human rights Serik Saparali – will stand trial separately at an as yet unknown date.
They are accused of “inciting social discord”, a serious charge carrying a prison sentence of up to ten years. They were not part of the Janaozen unrest on December 16, but had expressed for the protesting oilmen and were subsequently involved in setting up an independent inquiry.
Perhaps to create an impression of balance, the authorities are also moving against a limited number of police and officials.
Five policemen who were in Janaozen have been accused of “exceeding their authority”. They are under house arrest but no trial date has been set.
Another case involves a officials accused of embezzling funds, the suggestion being that their wrongdoing contributed to the unrest. They include the former mayor of Janaozen and managers of the state oil company’s social fund. Again, the case has not reached trial stage.
Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor. This article was published at IWPR’s RCA Issue 673.