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They shot to kill: the massacre of Kazakhstan’s striking oil workers, eight years on

Eight years after the infamous massacre of striking oil workers and their supporters at Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, human rights defenders in the oil-rich republic are still seeking answers.

13 January 2020
San Francisco: Protest against Kazakh government's response to striking oil workers, December 2011
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CC BY-SA 3.0: Amineshaker / Wiki. Some rights reserved.

On 16 December 2011, police opened fire on unarmed citizens of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan. The victims included oil workers who were on strike, and innocent passers-by. The authorities of Mangistau region said the police had begun shooting “in self defence” – until videos appeared on the internet showing how people ran from armed men in uniform, who were shooting to kill.

According to official data, 16 people died and roughly 100 were injured. Zhanaozen residents and human rights defenders said that the number of victims may have been several times greater. But a state of emergency was immediately declared in the city, and then hundreds of men of all ages were detained and beaten by police. Thirty seven people, including participants in the oil workers’ strike, were tried and sentenced to time in jail or to suspended sentences. Five police officers, and the director of the detention centre where people were tortured, were also tried for exceeding their legal powers.

Two years after the Zhanaozen tragedy, Galym Ageleuov, a Kazakh political analyst and human rights defender, made a film about the events of 16 December 2011 and what followed. City residents and the families of those convicted talked to Ageleuov, since he had travelled to Zhanaozen and written about the strike even before the massacre.

In an interview with Current Time - translated with permission by People and Nature, Ageleuov explained how an industrial dispute turned into a hopeless strike and demonstration on the town square, what happened on the day of the tragedy, and why people who began by fighting for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work ended up fearing journalists and the police.

Why the oil workers struck. Events before 16 December

Please tell us about the oil workers’ strike. What was its character? What demands were made?

The strike began in the spring of 2011 at Ersai, at Ersai Caspian Contractor, a firm linked to an Italian company. The latter supplied and repaired equipment for the oil producers. The workforce of about 1,000 people went on strike. In solidarity with that strike, another strike started in Aktau, at Karazhanbasmunai.

Karazhanbasmunai is the main company on which Aktau’s economy depends. They operate a large number of oilfields in Mangistau region. The oil workers demonstrated in front of the head office, demanding a pay rise and fair working conditions. The point is that, at one time, Karazhanbasmunai was Canadian owned; then the authorities sold a 50% share to a Chinese company. A Chinese director was appointed, and this had an effect on the immediate climate of [labour] relations.

But even before that, in 2009-2010, there had been strikes. Some of the trade union leaders had been beaten up, and there had even been an arson attack on the home of one of the leaders of the Karazhanbasmunai trade union committee. So in 2011 they supported Ersai. And then the workers at Ozenmunaigaz also came out in solidarity. This is a huge enterprise for Zhanaozen, roughly 12,000 employees. And they raised a strike in Zhanaozen.

The workers gathered at OS-5 – a facility to which oil is sent by pipeline – and picketed it until they were dispersed, with the help of the OMON riot police, at the start of June [2011]. Demonstrators were beaten and detained by the police. When oil workers’ wives went to the men’s defence, they were also beaten. I interviewed these women who had gone to the police stations to find out what had happened to their husbands. I have a video that shows their cuts and bruises. The state forces tried their very best to terrorise the strikers and their families; they acted as the strong arm of the company bosses.

After that the workers started a hunger strike on the premises of Karazhanbasmunai and Ozenmunaigaz. They refused food, and demanded a conciliatory procedure, in which representatives of the employers and the strikers would sit round the negotiating table as equals.

The strikers were not in an aggressive mood at the start?

No. There was no aggression from their side. On the contrary, it was the authorities who were turning the screws on them. At Karazhanbasmunai, the whole workforce at a general meeting took a vote of no confidence in the previous [trade union] leader, due to some financial irregularities. They voted in Natalia Sokolova to head the trade union committee. She spoke at a general meeting of workers from all the oil fields and the head office, about [the employers’] breaches of the labour code, about how workers’ pay was being cut. She said that promises made in 2009 by the deputy prime minister, then Karim Masimov, that pay would be brought to the Minimum Pay Standard [MSOT] – that is, the national minimum plus 70-80% for oil industry weighting and regional weighting – had not been kept. She spoke about how the system set up by the wages offices meant that workers were receiving less than their due.

Then they refused to pay bonuses in that year, under a mass of pretexts. There were so many problems at Ozenmunaigaz. For example, they compelled workers to buy protective clothing, which was supposed to be provided free of charge. Somebody was making a living out of sewing these garments and selling them to workers. Workers were not being supplied with the most elementary things: protective gloves, milk, whatever.

So the whole thing was about pay?

The starting-point was pay, for sure. But then, when the employers dug in, refused to consider conciliatory procedures, undertook repressive actions, the strike took on a political character. Because they started arresting the workers’ leaders.

Natalia Sokolova herself went to the prosecutor’s office, and demanded from the prosecutors and police that they go to the previous head of the trade union committee, and take from him the official stamp, because that was the decision of the general meeting [that she was elected to replace him]. [Note. It is difficult, or impossible, for organisations to perform their functions legally in Kazakhstan without their official stamp.] But instead of implementing the workforce’s decision, the police arrested Natalia and detained her for eight days. And then, without her being released from the temporary detention centre, Natalia was jailed for six years on the same charges. Although any lawyer will tell you that you can not serve two sentences – in this case, eight days and six years – for the same crime. [Note. Natalia Sokolova was jailed in August 2011 for “inciting social discord”. She was released in March 2012, after admitting her guilt.]

Is it correct that there was a definite point beyond which the clash between the strikers and the company management could no longer be described as an industrial dispute? In the sense that the oil workers quit the ruling party Nur Otan and that representatives of the political opposition visited Zhanaozen?

In April [2011], when all three companies were on strike, the employers took a case to court, and straightaway received a judgment that the strike was unlawful. The employers brought the court decision and told the strikers: you are outside the law. So all the workers’ completely legal demands were rejected by the employers. It was they, the employers, who opted for violence, who would not agree to conciliatory procedures or negotiate. They just started piling on the pressure. Strikers were simply detained, held under arrest and jailed for the tiniest misdemeanours.

For example Natalia Azhigalieva [one of the strike organisers] gave an interview to journalists from Radio Azattyk who visited Zhanaozen. The interview was put out the next day, and Natalia was arrested and jailed for 15 days for no reason.

People went to Alan square [in the centre of Zhanaozen]. The workers of OS-5 were attacked by the OMON riot police at the beginning of July [2011], and were compelled to go on to the central square. And they lived there from morning until night. And even stayed there overnight, with their families, with their children.

At the start this was about 5,000 people. Then the numbers dropped: they were there for eight months. The whole town lived this way: those on the square were supported, people showed solidarity. Because a man on the square might have a family of twelve, all without work – and he was the only breadwinner. So they lived on their nerves, without a penny. And people were ready to take radical actions. That’s how the strike was politicised.

Then they took the decision to quit Nur Otan en masse. They went to the Nur Otan office and demanded, or simply told them, that they were leaving the party. The thing is that Zhanaozen lives entirely on the back of Ozenmunaigaz. This city was a tent settlement; then it grew; it became a city of 130,000-140,000 inhabitants. But the infrastructure stayed the same. The money was looted from the city’s budgets. All the Akims [mayors] that held office were concerned only with their personal interests. For example, all the money that was transferred from Ozenmunaigaz [to the city administration] for the city’s social development disappeared into a network of NGOs that no-one had ever heard of. Big sums of money went that way, and ended up in the hands of the self-same officials and bureaucrats who ran the city.

In terms of pay, they had one amount above-board – 150,000-170,000 tenge – but in the departments that answered to Astana [the Kazakh capital], they were getting 400,000. More than twice as much. So all sorts of money was disappearing on the side.

You mentioned pressure being put on strikers and their families. What sort of pressure?

Well, for example, in 2010-2011 oil workers were getting beaten up. One of the trade union leaders, Zhaksylyk Turbaev, was killed. He was murdered in a portacabin at his workplace. It was especially brutal: he was beaten with steel bars and wooden staves. There was blood all over the place. The police just turned a blind eye; they didn’t find the perpetrators.

Then there was the case of Zhansaule Karabalaeva, the daughter of one of the especially well-known oil workers. Her dad was not one of the official trade union committee leaders, but he was well known at Ozenmunaigaz. His daughter was raped and murdered. She was forced into a car; they said, it’s a taxi, you’re going to the military base. Then they took her out to the steppe, where no-one could see, and killed her. Her funeral made an impact on the strikers.

Abai Abenov was a man who could not bear the strain of the eight months of strike action, and hung himself.

There may have been other cases. I am telling you about the ones I know about.

All this added to the sense of outrage at the actions of the police, of the criminals, and of all the official state structures who should have been sorting things out.

16 December. What happened on the square

What happened on the square in Zhanaozen on 16 December 2011? How did the disorder start? The strikers began to damage equipment and set fire to buildings. What happened?

It’s wrong to say that this was the oil workers. It was the Independence Day holiday, a city festival. The city authorities invited everyone to Alan square, and about 5,000 people gathered there. The headmasters brought school pupils, the technical colleges brought their students. There was a huge crowd on the square, everyone from school pupils to old age pensioners, who had come to mark Independence Day.

The oil workers had been occupying a part of Alan square. And as the celebration was being prepared, it seemed clear that a provocation was being prepared. In the days prior to the incident, the oil workers asked the Akim of the city about this. There is a video of the Akim promising categorically that nothing is going to happen, that there would be no provocation.

But for a month beforehand groups of OMON [riot police], armed to the teeth, were brought to Zhanaozen from Aktau. They had been there for a month, working out how to break the strike.

It was thought that there were provocateurs on the square. Who were they?

If we look, at least, to the level of the security forces, there was a definite plan to discredit those who were on strike. And for this they invited organised crime groups. I can not confirm for sure what happened, but I received information that these groups were brought from nearby regions. For example, from Atyrau. I have been told that, after the whole thing was over, a load of Ozenmunaigaz work overalls [that provocateurs had put on, on the square] were dumped somewhere in Atyrau.

There was talk of men dressed in black on the square.

There were men in black. If you look at the video evidence, these men raised a white flag, and the police did not fire at them. Naturally, there was some sort of worked-out plan. What’s more, there were snipers on all sides. There was a unit of 100 armed officers who shot at all the people in the square. For 20-30 minutes, they fired continuously at people.

What’s more, there were children on Alan square, because they had not all yet been sent home. There are descriptions, from the evidence given at the trial of the 37 oil workers on disorder charges [which followed the massacre], of how school pupils from the sixth and seventh classes helped a woman, Aizhan, who was hit by a bullet in the thigh. Her leg was almost hanging off, hardly anything was left of the bone. The sixth- and seventh-class schoolchildren carried her and ran.

Literally everyone was faced by these bursts of fire. This was not shooting in the air, it was not shooting at people’s legs. They were shooting to kill.

Is there an answer to the question, who gave the order to open fire? You are saying that a number of people have been identified. Could [the deputy head of internal affairs of Mangistau region] colonel Kabdygali Utegaliev take such a decision himself? [Note. Utegaliev was convicted in April 2012 of having given the order to fire, jailed, and then released in September 2014.]

Utegaliev and [colonel Ulykbek] Myltykov [a senior police officer in Mangistau who gave evidence in court about the massacre] could not have taken that decision themselves. Look at it logically: for one month armed OMON special forces units had been in place. They were barracked at a sports complex, separate from other forces. They were being prepared, some sort of plans were being worked out. Why didn’t anybody think about using rubber bullets or some other special materials? They were prepared for one option [using live ammunition].

We can not say for sure that they prepared 100% for that option and no other. But why didn’t they think of other options, without lethal outcomes? It’s just incomprehensible. Why did they resort, straight away, to shooting? It seems extremely unlikely that they would dare to take this decision at local level.

Rubber bullets would not have killed the strikers. Could they have been used?

Of course. And they should have used them, if they wanted to. The strikers were just standing on the square, they weren’t running anywhere.

When people talk about the Zhanaozen massacre, officially they refer to 16 people killed on 16 December at Zhanaozen, and one killed on 17 December at Shetpe. Is anything known about police casualties?

The police began by saying that the disorder was initiated by those who were on the square. And for sure, if you look at the video, there was a point at which the oil workers, citizens of Zhanaozen, broke through the security cordon. Because the police were trying to tighten the cordon and force the strikers towards the edge of the square, and this provoked a response.

Picture the scene. There were yurts [traditional tents], people were inside these yurts, eating. There were oil workers there, hungry, after eight months on strike, they had had no pay, nothing. And women, who – remember, on the video – were shouting: “What sort of holiday is this? Is this really a celebration?” And music started playing at a deafening volume. At that moment the police began to push back the crowd, to tighten the screws. Then the people broke through this encirclement and the police cleared off the square: some ran, others walked. The oil workers and local residents just sent them packing.

If the video clips, taken by ordinary witnesses, had not appeared [on youtube], do you think anything would have become known about the Zhanaozen massacre?

I think we are very lucky that the objective truth was shown exactly by those clips. They appeared on the day after the statement by the general prosecutor, that the disorder had been started by troublemakers who allegedly started a pogrom, who fired at the police. In fact it’s clear from the videos that no one was threatening the police, that a police unit came on to the square and started shooting.

When did they first video appear? The same day?

No. They showed up, I think, on the 18th or 19th of December.

After 16 December. How they interrogated and charged people in Zhanaozen

On the 16th, witnesses describe how all the hospitals in Zhanaozen were drenched in blood. The ambulances didn’t come straight away to take people to hospital. The town was in shock, after the police had been shooting to kill. Then the oil workers got together with other residents, and began to carry away those who were seriously wounded. They gathered them all in one place, and after about half an hour the ambulances began to arrive.

At the morgue, there were 16 places for bodies. This may be the reason why the figure of 16 dead was given at Zhanaozen – simply because that was the number of places at the morgue. It’s absolutely clear, from the statements of many witnesses, that the bodies lay piled up on top of each other. And that indicates that there were not only 16 killed. What’s more, the ambulances began to take people to the hospital at Zhetybai, 30-40 kilometres from Zhanaozen. They took the most seriously wounded people to the district hospital at Aktau, and some died there, too.

For example Rakhat Kusherov, a 16-year old child, who was sitting in a car. He was not even on Alan square, he was just passing by in a car, and a bullet hit him in the neck. The doctors took a decision to take him to Aktau. He died on the road, while travelling there by ambulance.

And there was Rakhat’s mother, with her son’s body, without any money, trying to get a lift back to Zhanaozen. She wept and told how she took her son back there, how she tried to bury him, but could not do so, because they issue a death certificate only when you agree that he died of natural causes, that he was not killed, that the cause of death was not a gunshot wound. And so the 16 killed [according to official data] – they are the ones whose death certificate states: died of gunshot wounds. And all the others have other things on their death certificates.

For example? Do you know what exactly the death certificates say?

It could be “heart attack”, or “hemorrhage”. There were a whole variety of reasons. For example, one man went out of the house in slippers, to the shop to buy cigarettes, or matches. He went out, and fell. His relatives went looking for him, ran all over the city, and found him in intensive care with a head wound.

Or Bazarbai Kenzhebaev. He was on his way to the maternity hospital to visit his younger daughter, to see whether her baby had arrived yet. And he was detained on the street, taken to the temporary detention centre where he was beaten up for several days. Another of his daughters, Asem Kenzhebaeva, went to find him, and they detained her too, sent her to the temporary detention centre too, beat her up too. It was lucky that she found someone there from the same area as her, Kyzylsaya. This guy let her go, and told his colleagues: don’t kill her, don’t beat her. She went home, and then they threw her father out of detention and brought him home. Soon afterwards, he died of the wounds he had received.

Then, in the year that followed, his wife died – she just hadn’t been able to bear all this – and then Asem, who had come to his aid, died. She succeeded in giving testimony in the European parliament, stating how her father had been tortured. Asem, and Yelena Kostiuchenko [a journalist for Novaya Gazeta], brought out the truth about the scale of the tortures. And that led to the trial [of police torturers] at Aktau, where Asem was the main witness.

After the massacre at Zhanaozen a state of emergency was declared. What did that mean in practice?

In practice that meant that you could only go out at particular times of day. But if the OMON saw you – and they were everywhere – they would search you, and look at your mobile phone. If there were any photos from Alan square, or any videos, then, naturally, it would be confiscated and you would be taken in.

Next to the temporary detention centre were garages. And there about 400 people stood in water up to their knees, barefoot. They were being tortured. They were beaten up. The security forces were deciding which of them should be made responsible for the disorders.

During the state of emergency, [police] cars prowled the streets. This is a proven fact: from these cars, they were just shooting at people. Usually, this was after the curfew.

For example, a woman, a mother of four children, was killed on 16 December while using a cash machine. A bullet hit her in the neck, from behind, and she died. She was killed. What does that tell us? A stray bullet can hit anyone.

What punishment did the police officers face for using weapons? And how quickly were they released?

Five police officers were tried – from the regional and city levels of command, those who had given the order to open fire, when the units moved on to the square. Those who gave the commands were identified; two of them were punished. And another three, whose weapons were found to have killed people, received sentences.

But the problem was that, when the weapons were distributed to officers – and, however bad this sounds, this is what was said in court – they did not register, as they should have done, to whom they were given out. So it is entirely possible that they simply found some scapegoats, someone from among the younger officers, and told him: your gun killed such-and-such a person, you are going to carry the can.

So you are saying there were five scapegoats?

Yes. That’s also what happened with Zhenisbek Temirov – a lieutenant, a young man who had literally a day or two before 16 December been appointed commander of the temporary detention centre. He was tried for allowing people to be tortured, convicted, and sentenced to five years. But there were generals, colonels, the whole structure of the security forces. None of them were punished. They just had to find the scapegoats. They said to them, don’t worry, you’ll only serve a couple of years. And that’s exactly what happened.

What about the witness, Alexander Bozhenko? Was he also a victim? You have not mentioned him.

Sasha [Alexander] – yes. Sasha is an example of the way in which they set up the 2012 trial [on disorder charges]. They got together some anonymous witnesses, some of whom were police officers, to give false testimony against the oil workers and other residents [who were accused]. One of the defendants, against whom an anonymous witness testified, recognised the witness as Sasha Bozhenko, by his voice.

And Sasha went to court and said, yes, he had himself been tortured by the police, they had broken his arm and beaten him, to make him bear false witness against this defendant. And Sasha told the court: “Let me die, then, but I am telling the truth. Before God I am pure, I will leave this world pure. I will die before Allah, pure.” That’s how it happened. And after about six months, he was murdered. It was done so that it looked like a chance encounter. There were two guys in a shop, who were short of 50 tenge to pay for what they wanted. Sasha came in, and offered them the 50 tenge. They waited until he came out, beat him up, put him in a taxi, took him away near a school building and beat him with steel bars.

Anything can be arranged. Although proving something, in this case, was not possible.

Please explain, how many of the oil workers and their supporters were tried, and what happened in court?

The trial was held under the laws on disorder, article 241 [of the Kazakh criminal code]: there were 37 defendants. At the hearings, 19 of them said straight out that they had been tortured. They explained in great detail how they had been beaten. They described the most carefully refined tortures. The lawyers demanded that the judge investigate the tortures.

The judge simply passed on the issue of torture to the very same Zhanaozen police [who were largely responsible]. They answered that there were no established facts about torture, that everything was fine. All the stories had been invented, they claimed. The judge quite happily believed all this, and the trial continued. Thirteen people were sentenced; the longest sentence was that served by Roza Tuletaeva – seven years. The rest got six, five, four years and so on.

What happened with the trade union movement in Kazakhstan after the 2011-2012 events in Zhanaozen?

Unfortunately the authorities drew all the wrong conclusions from these events. From 2011 onwards they toughened up the legislative framework in Kazakhstan [against trade unions]. All the implications of international conventions, all the agreements on human rights, that drag our country towards greater openness and freedom – all that was thrown out, everything from laws on religious freedom to the labour code. Practically all organisations independent of the state, from newspapers to trade unions, have been liquidated.

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