UPDATE 1-Kazakh court jails 13 for oil town riots

Mon Jun 4, 2012 9:18am EDT

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By Dmitry Solovyov

AKTAU, Kazakhstan, June 4 (Reuters) - Thirteen people were jailed on Monday for rioting in a Kazakh oil town, prompting courtroom scuffles between relatives and police at the end of a 10-week trial that followed deadly labour unrest in the Central Asian state.

Twenty four of the 37 defendants accused of rioting in the town of Zhanaozen last December were freed by the court in the western city of Aktau. Three were acquitted and the remainder amnestied or given suspended sentences.

The violence, in which at least 14 people were killed, shattered Kazakhstan's image of stability and posed the most serious challenge to President Nursultan Nazarbayev in more than two decades in charge of the oil-producing former Soviet state.

Police used live rounds in Zhanaozen after months of protests by sacked oil workers erupted into riots on Dec. 16, the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence from the Soviet Union.

Relatives of the 37 defendants crammed into a sweltering courtroom inside a converted youth centre to hear the verdicts. The open trial, which began on March 27, was held in the Caspian port city of Aktau, 145 km (90 miles) west of Zhanaozen.

Judge Aralbai Nagashybayev took more than three hours to read out the verdicts, pausing to drink water and wipe sweat from his brow. Sixteen defendants were given two-year suspended terms, while 12 were jailed for between three and six years.

Roza Tuletayeva, one of two women on trial, received the longest prison term, seven years.

After the last sentences were passed, a crowd of female relatives, many of them wailing, tried to break through a police cordon to reach the glass box where the accused were held. Some of the guilty pounded on the glass from within.

"Where's the truth? Where's the justice? The authorities have led us all to this tragedy," an elderly woman screamed.

Many residents of Mangistau, an oil-producing region on the Caspian shore, say Kazakh authorities failed to address the grievances of oil workers, who had demanded higher salaries. They also question why police opened fire.

"My son was in the square because he wanted to make sure his children did not go hungry," Gulnar Karakulova, 57, said before her son was handed a three-year jail sentence. "He did not take part in any disorder."

Kazakh authorities say police were resorted to lethal force only after being attacked by violent protesters. Under scrutiny from the West, they have pledged to hold a fair investigation.

Six policemen, tried separately, were jailed last month for abusing their power. They include the deputy police chief for Mangistau and the head of a detention centre who failed to allow medical care for a 50-year-old man who later died.

SERIES OF TRIALS

The trial is the largest of four related to the two days of violence in Mangistau. In addition to the two police trials, six people were convicted on May 21 and six more cleared of rioting in the village of Shetpe near Zhanaozen.

Nazarbayev, a 71-year-old former steelworker who rose through the ranks of the Soviet Communist party, is popular among many in Kazakhstan for the sustained economic growth and stability he has brought in an otherwise volatile region.

Kazakhstan is the largest former Soviet oil producer after Russia and has attracted more than $150 billion in foreign investment since independence in 1991.

But members of Kazakhstan's marginalised political opposition accuse authorities of stifling dissent and failing to distribute oil wealth equally across the nation of 16.7 million.

Opposition politicians Bolat Abilov and Amirzhan Kosanov were applauded as they shook hands with relatives of the accused in the courtroom, located 2,600 km (1,600 miles) and a time-zone west of the glitzy and futuristic capital Astana.

Around 18 political activists are expected to stand trial during the summer accused of fomenting "social hatred" among the striking oilmen.

Those sentenced on Monday were on trial for crimes including mass disorder, arson, destruction of property and the use of violence against law enforcement officials.

Tuletayeva had been accused of being one of the main instigators of the violence. Her mother, in tears, was quickly led away from the court by relatives. A Reuters reporter saw three women being carried out of the court after fainting. (Additional reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva in Almaty; Writing By Robin Paxton; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

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