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Azattyq Journalists Pursue Torture Allegations

Kazakhstan - A police officer keeping watch in Zhanaozen December 18, 2011.

Amnesty International has accused Kazakh authorities of “pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community” when it comes to prisoner abuse and excessive use of force. RFE/RL reporting is preventing a whitewash of torture accusations.

More than a year and a half after security forces fired on a crowd of striking oil workers in the western Kazakh town of Zhanaozen, human rights groups say there still has not been a comprehensive investigation into the use of force by the authorities and the abuse of protesters detained that day.

At least 16 demonstrators died on December 16, 2011, with more than 100 seriously injured and dozens more arrested. Some of those arrested allege torture during their detainment, accusations summarized in a recent Amnesty International report.

“Despite the authorities’ continued assertions that they have conducted thorough and impartial investigations, 17 months on from the violence in Zhanaozen, justice has not been delivered for the use of excessive and lethal force, for the arbitrary detention, and the torture and other ill-treatment resulting in unfair trials for scores of people,” said Nicola Duckworth, senior director of research at Amnesty International.

RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Radio Azattyq, was one of the first media outlets to report on the violence that day, and has been unrelenting in its coverage of the aftermath of the tragedy and the struggle for justice faced by torture victims and their relatives.

RFE/RL, along with Amnesty International and other human rights groups, has documented eyewitness testimony of detainees being kept in solitary confinement, stripped naked, beaten, kicked and doused with cold water while in police custody in the days and weeks following the protests in Zhanaozen.

So far, five senior security officers have been convicted of abuse of power, but the torture allegations remain unaddressed.

Tracking Abuse

RFERL Regional Experts, Yerzhan Karabekov, Kazakh Service
RFERL Regional Experts, Yerzhan Karabekov, Kazakh Service
“When authorities used these types of abuse and tortures, it was done cynically in front of the whole world,” said Yerzhan Karabekov, online producer for RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, which is among the few media outlets in Kazakhstan covering prisoner abuse cases -- those emanating from the roundup of demonstrators in Zhanaozen or otherwise.

In February, 2012, the Kazakh Service interviewed the daughter of Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, a man who was taken into police custody following the Zhanaozen protests and died on December 21, 2011, just two days after his release. In this video interview with RFE/RL, she speaks about her father’s death and says he was brutally beaten by the police. Only one person has been charged and sentenced in this case, and according to Amnesty International, no “real attempt” to investigate and bring the guilty parties to justice has been made.

RFE/RL also closely follows the case of labor activist Roza Tuletaeva, who was convicted of inciting violence at the December 16 demonstration and whose five-year sentence was upheld by Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court in May, 2013. She has testified that she was subjected to torture in her pre-trial detention. She described being suffocated, hung by her hair, and sexually abused in ways she was “too ashamed to disclose” in front of her family and relatives.

PHOTO GALLERY: Zhanaozen: One Year After Deadly Clashes

Exposing Maltreatment

Reporting on torture in Kazakhstan is never an easy undertaking. As Karabekov explains, authorities keep a tight lid on documents related to torture allegations and limit access to detention facilities, and persuading victims and witnesses to come forward is extremely difficult.

“Most freed prisoners are not brave enough to speak in detail about what is going on behind the prison walls,” said Karabekov. “There is still an atmosphere of darkness and overall totalitarian suspicion, and the relatives of prisoners hope that if they are not open to western media, then somehow they can reach an agreement with the torturers to get more lenient treatment for their relatives.”

Despite the threat of further abuse, many prisoners’ relatives have told their stories to RFE/RL, which continues to investigate torture in Kazakh prisons, both the cases following the crackdown in Zhanaozen and more broadly as part of its human rights reporting.

“Muslim minorities also often speak of maltreatment behind bars,” said Karabekov. “The challenge now for journalists and local civic activists is to get first-hand information about the torture practices used in prisons.”

--Emily Thompson