Angry relatives of the accused burst into a Kazakhstan courtroom shortly before 37 people were due to go on trial yesterday for their role in deadly oil town riots that shattered the image of stability in the oil-producing Central Asian state.
The defendants are accused of participating in December clashes that killed at least 14 people in the oil town of Zhanaozen, posing the most serious challenge to veteran Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in more than two decades of rule.
Authorities say police were forced to open fire after being attacked by violent protesters, including sacked oil workers. Under scrutiny from the West and human rights bodies, they have pledged to hold a transparent investigation and fair trials.
Relatives of the accused said they were excluded from the open trial, held in the Caspian port city of Aktau, after being crammed into an anteroom near the makeshift court in a single-story youth center, hurriedly converted in the last few days.
“These people are innocent,” said Amantai Zhaumitbai, a 55-year-old ambulance driver among the dozens of relatives gathered outside the courtroom.
Judge Aralbai Nagashybayev adjourned the trial for several hours after one of two juveniles accused failed to appear at the court.
None of the defendants entered the glass cubicle beneath the stage where the judge sat prior to the adjournment.
The 37 accused face charges of organizing mass disorder, attacking police, robbery and arson during the violence on Dec. 16 in the remote and dusty town of Zhanaozen, 145km inland from regional capital Aktau.
The riots erupted on the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union and followed a months-long protest by local oil workers fired after going on strike in an attempt to win higher wages for their work on the salty steppe.
Many residents of Zhanaozen and Aktau say authorities were culpable for their failure to address the labor dispute by oil workers that began in May last year.
“Why are the Kazakh authorities sitting up there on high? Why did they let this happen?” said Zhaumitbai, whose brother, the breadwinner for a family of seven, is among those on trial.
“They went to defend their rights, but he was arrested along with the others,” he said, wearing a traditional embroidered felt hat. “Oil has been produced here for 50 years and it has brought nothing good to the workers.”
Nazarbayev, a 71-year-old former steel worker, is genuinely popular across much of his country of 16.7 million people after presiding over sustained economic growth that has lifted Kazakh per capita GDP to levels on a par with Turkey and Mexico.
Critics point to a lack of democratic freedoms and say Nazarbayev is intolerant of dissent.