Communications Shut Down after Clashes Near Long-Peaceful Labor Protest
December 17, 2011
Even in times of unrest and violence, when police restore order they should do so without using excessive force. While it’s too early to make any conclusions about what happened, there are international rules and standards about the use of lethal force, and Kazakh authorities should observe them.
Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher

(Moscow) – Kazakhstan’s law enforcement officers should strictly observe human rights norms as they restore order in Zhanaozen, a city in western Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said today. Multiple injuries and deaths were reported after a violent clash between civilians and police on December 16, 2011, at the site of a peaceful oil workers’ strike at OzenMunaiGas in the city’s main square.

“Even in times of unrest and violence, when police restore order they should do so without using excessive force,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While it’s too early to make any conclusions about what happened, there are international rules and standards about the use of lethal force, and Kazakh authorities should observe them.”

On the morning of December 16, the striking oil workers gathered on Zhanaozen's central square, the site of their ongoing strike, and the location of an official Independence Day celebration scheduled for later that day. The estimated 100 to 150 strikers were peaceful, as they had been every day for the past seven months, a local human rights group said.

The group, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said that the festivities began around midday and that at that point, 20 to 30 young men in burgundy oil company jackets went to the stage constructed for the Independence Day event, and began destroying sound equipment. A video clip broadcast on various news programs shows the men in the red jackets destroying the equipment.

A statement from the Kazakhstan Prosecutor General’s office said that those involved “overturned the New Year’s tree, tore down yurts and the stage and set a police bus on fire.” One of the workers who was at the square told Human Rights Watch that, around midday, gunshots could be heard and fighting broke out with police.

Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm independently how the clashes began or who participated in the violence. One worker in Zhanaozen said that police at one point fired tear gas at striking workers. Other workers later told Human Rights Watch that buildings had been set on fire, including the Mayor’s office, the OzenMunaiGas office building, and a hotel. Workers also said that the police had used lethal weapons against unarmed protesters and other civilians, reportedly killing four or five and wounding dozens. 

The government has apparently shut down access to at least some mobile, voice, and text services in Zhanaozen. By late afternoon, Human Rights Watch could no longer reach workers by mobile phone, and access to Twitter.com and other news sites reporting on the unrest had been blocked by the authorities.

“Without a means to communicate with the outside world, people in Zhanaozen are extremely vulnerable,” Rittmann said.

The statement from the Prosecutor General’s office said that, “Mass disturbances due to criminal actions conducted took place during celebrations,” blaming the violence on a “group of hooligans.” The statement confirmed preliminary information that 10 people had been killed, and others wounded, including police officers.

Under international law, authorities may use lethal force only as a last resort and with constraint. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and with preservation of human life respected.

The Prosecutor General’s office statement said that a criminal case has been opened with respect to the mass disturbances in Zhanaozen. Human Rights Watch called on the Kazakh authorities to ensure that the investigation into the violence, and in particular workers’ allegations that police fired and killed several people and wounded dozens, is carried out in a thorough and impartial manner and that those responsible for the violence are held accountable in line with international fair trial norms. Human Rights Watch also urged the authorities to restore telecommunications services and ensure that independent human rights groups can investigate the incident without hindrance.

In Aktau, about 120 kilometers west of Zhanaozen, several hundred oil workers held a rally to support the OzenMunaiGas workers. A person close to the situation in Aktau told Human Rights Watch that sometime between 7 and 8 p.m., police detained about 100 protesters and took them to a temporary detention center. By 1 a.m., nearly all had been released. Workers in Aktau reported heavy police surveillance at the protest, which was held in front of the regional mayor’s office.

“Authorities have long restricted the right to peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan and detaining peaceful protesters in Aktau is an example of their intolerance to peaceful dissent,” Rittmann said. “In a democratic society, the people should be able to protest peacefully without fear of detention or harassment.”

The strike began in May at OzenMunaiGas, which is a subsidiary of Kazakhstan’s state oil and gas company KazMunaiGas. Over a dozen workers began a hunger strike, calling on OzenMunaiGas to review a list of complaints that included the company’s revision of the workers’ collective agreement, introduction of wage coefficients in their salaries, and changes to the system of remuneration that had been adopted the previous year. Workers told Human Rights Watch that thousands of other workers had joined the strike. 

Strikes and labor protests at two other companies in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector also began in May. Local courts declared the strikes at all three companies illegal, and workers, including workers at OzenMunaiGas, were fined or sentenced to short term detention for violating the law on organizing and holding peaceful gatherings (article 373 of the Administrative Code) or failing to fulfill judicial acts (article 524 of the Administrative Code). On July 8, riot police dispersed striking OzenMunaiGas oil workers from one of OzenMunaiGas’ production units where they had begun their strike and, in the middle of the following night, rounded up workers who remained on a hunger strike, using force. The dispersed oil workers regrouped at Zhanaozen’s central square, where they have been striking daily ever since.

Authorities brought more serious criminal charges against the perceived leaders. On August 17, Akzhanat Aminov, one of the OzenMunaiGas workers, was givena two-year suspended prison sentence on grounds that he had led the strike by giving orders to workers over the phone. The verdict said that Aminov explained that “he gave advice to the workers by phone, but he could not imagine that this constituted organizing [the strike], he thought that he was just helping the workers restore their violated rights.” 

On August 8, in Aktau a union lawyer Natalia Sokolova had been sentenced to six yearsin prison for speaking to oil workers from KarazhanBasMunai, another oil company in western Kazakhstan, on issues of wage disparity on charges of inciting social discord.

OzenMunaiGas has fired hundreds of employees – 989, media reports say – for participating in the strike. In an August 26 statement posted to its website, OzenMunaiGas’ parent company, KazMunaiGas, stated, “Given that the main objective of the Company is to ensure the normal production process…KMG EP had to continue firing those participants in the illegal strike who refused to perform their duties.” 

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