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Forlorn relatives of Kazakh accused appeal to West
March 28, 2012 / 2:30 PM / 5 years ago

Forlorn relatives of Kazakh accused appeal to West

* Second day of trial into oil town violence

* Tearful relatives say accused are innocent

* Kazakh authorities promise fair hearing

By Dmitry Solovyov

AKTAU, Kazakhstan, March 28 (Reuters) - Timid and tearful, relatives of those accused of rioting in a windswept Kazakh oil town had one message from inside the makeshift courtroom: “If only the West could hear us.”

Most hold little hope for the 37 defendants who went on trial this week accused of participating in clashes in December that killed at least 14 people and saw police use live rounds in the oil town of Zhanaozen.

The violence has posed the most serious challenge to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a 71-year-old former steelworker who rose through the ranks of the Soviet Communist party, in his more than two decades in charge of the resource-rich nation.

The strongman leader of Central Asia’s largest economy remains popular across the predominantly Muslim nation of 16.7 million people for the sustained economic growth and stability he has brought in an otherwise volatile region.

But 2,600 km (1,625 miles) and a time-zone to the west of his glitzy and futuristic capital Astana, belief is waning inside the converted youth centre in the Caspian port city of Aktau, where the mass trial began on Tuesday.

“I don’t believe him (Nazarbayev) any more. The main values proclaimed by Kazakhstan’s constitution - freedom of expression, of the press and above all human life - are empty words here,” said an elderly man whose nephew is standing trial.

Like most relatives of the accused, he declined to give his name. “If only the West could hear us,” he said. “Could you please explain to me why they use tear gas against protesters in the West, while here they killed people?”

A sombre relative took him by the elbow and led him aside. “He has twice been warned by the KNB not to talk too much,” he said, referring to the Kazakh successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

Kazakh authorities have promised a transparent investigation and a fair trial open to media and observers. Foreign Ministry spokesman Roman Vassilenko on Tuesday called for calm and said due process must be allowed to be followed.

Ryskul was among a group of 20 relatives attempting to watch the trial of her 37-year-old brother. Only a few of them managed to enter the cramped courtroom after elbowing their way through a crowd at a metal barrier guarding the entrance.

“Tell the West, the European Parliament and others that they should defend us. Here, we have nothing to hope for now,” she said, hand in hand with her two youngest children.

A group of her elderly female relatives sat nearby in the shadow of the court’s walls, eating traditional Kazakh flatbread, boiled eggs and sausage.

Timur, 13-year-old son of Ryskul’s brother, said: “This is our support group. My father is innocent and he must be freed.”

‘OUT INTO THE SQUARE’

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.

Kazakhstan, where Nazarbayev has overseen rapid market reforms, enjoys higher living standards than its neighbours.

But intolerance of dissent has led authorities periodically to shut down some social Internet networks and muzzle critical media. Several opposition activists have been jailed since the riots in Zhanaozen.

Roza Tuletayeva was one of four main instigators of the mass protests in the main square on Dec. 16, a prosecutor told the court on Wednesday, accusing her of sending text messages on the eve of the riot urging people to take to the streets next day.

Ten minutes before 10 o’clock next morning, she sent a message saying: ‘Everybody out into the square!', the prosecutor read in his indictment speech.

“A car was burnt down at 1300 and then she sent a message: ‘Let’s start it!’ They had deliberately planned these disturbances,” the prosecutor said.

Tuletayeva’s daughter, Aliya, gave another version. “My mother gave too many truthful interviews, and for that she was listed as one of the instigators,” she said outside the court.

Roza’s mother, Damish, burst into tears: “I would like to tell you how it was in reality, but I can‘t. I will only make life harder for my daughter.”

Many residents of Zhanaozen say authorities were culpable for their failure to address the strikers’ grievances. . They also question why police opened fire.

The authorities say police were forced to resort to lethal force after being attacked by violent protesters.

Prosecutors told the trial that protesters had pelted police with stones and that some defendants had injured up to 13 officers. Two defendants were charged with setting a hotel and the private cottage of an oil firm director on fire, inflicting damage worth nearly $7 million. (Editing by Robin Paxton)

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