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

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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