ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A silent mutiny is simmering in the windswept Kazakh oil town of Zhanaozen as the first accused prepare to stand trial for their part in violence that shattered the image of stability in the oil-producing Central Asian state.
Veteran President Nursultan Nazarbayev smiles down from billboards above dusty streets patrolled by police cars, but the few residents of Zhanaozen who dared speak to reporters could ill conceal their anger ahead of the trial of the 37 accused.
“People are still gripped by fear,” said Marat, 24, an unemployed resident of the town where at least 14 people were killed when a seven-month protest by sacked oil workers erupted into the most violent clashes in Kazakhstan for decades.
“With my own eyes I saw people being shot with submachine guns,” he said, declining to reveal his second name.
The accused will be tried in Aktau, capital of the western region of Mangistau, for a range of crimes including attacks on police, the organisation of mass disorder, arson and robbery.
Facing pressure from the West and human rights bodies, authorities in Kazakhstan, a mainly Muslim country of 16.7 million people and Central Asia’s largest economy, have pledged to hold a transparent investigation and fair trials.
The Supreme Court says the open trial will take place in Aktau, on the Caspian Sea coast about 145 km (90 miles) west of Zhanaozen, to provide more security and transparency.
For Marat, a pious Muslim who says he fears only Allah, those standing trial are not the ones to blame. The authorities, he said, were culpable for their failure to address a labour dispute by the town’s oil workers that began in May last year.
“I was heading to a mosque for Friday prayer,” he said, recalling the events of December 16, the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union.
“I saw soldiers, riot police shooting at people,” he said.
“Those above, sitting in their armchairs, are guilty ... company directors, parliamentarians, ministers and so on, right up to the president. He is guilty as well.”
The violence, which spread to a nearby village the next day, has become the most serious challenge to Nazarbayev in his more than two decades as leader of Kazakhstan.
The 71-year-old former steelworker, who rose to prominence through the ranks of the Soviet Communist party, is genuinely popular after presiding over sustained economic growth that has lifted per capita GDP to levels on par with Turkey or Mexico.
But critics point to a lack of democratic freedoms and his intolerance of dissent. Even mild criticism of Nazarbayev and his family is taboo for tightly controlled state media.
Kazakhstan’s marginalised opposition has held a series of rallies in Almaty, the country’s largest city, since a January parliamentary election won easily by Nazarbayev’s party but criticised by Western observers for its lack of competition.
In Zhanaozen, a Soviet-era settlement of limestone apartment blocks built to serve the nearby oilfields, many are not happy.
“They are doing the wrong thing. First they killed us, and now they are putting us on trial,” said 23-year-old firefighter ‘Adai’. He gave an assumed name, a reference to an ancient Kazakh warrior tribe of the same name from the region.
“Those who shot into the crowd must not only be tried, they must be executed,” he said.
‘TALKING TOO MUCH’
Nearly 1,000 workers from local oil firm Uzenmunaigas - whose headquarters were torched during the riots - were fired after going on strike when demands for a pay rise for their work on the salty steppe were not met.
Their monthly wages, roughly double the national average of $620, have been eroded by rising food prices and service costs in the remote region, where Kazakh families traditionally have many children and women are usually housewives.
Jobless and without incomes, the workers gathered regularly on the main square - many in company overalls - before violence erupted.
The prosecutor-general’s office has said police acted within their legal bounds and resorted to the use of weapons only after a “group of sacked oilmen and hooligan youths committed mass disorder”.
‘Adai’ said his cousin, a striking oil worker, had been among the protesters in Zhanaozen’s main square on December 16.
“Police opened fire, and he was hit in the leg. He was brought to an Aktau hospital and then was jailed. He will now go on trial,” he said.
He said his cousin’s wife had also been put under house arrest. “Most probably, she was talking too much,” he said.
Many residents were too afraid to speak. A state of emergency - the first in any Kazakh town - was enforced until the end of January and the police presence is still high.
A passer-by, a man in his fifties, whispered: “I’ve got a lot to tell you about our life, but I have to step on the brakes. We all have children. My son would be kicked out of his office if I told you the truth.”
The Supreme Court has not revealed the identities of those who will stand trial, although it has said two juveniles are among the 37 accused. Six prosecutors and 12 defence lawyers will participate in the trial, which is due to begin on Tuesday.
Oksana Peters, spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, told reporters in the capital Astana that relatives of the accused and of those killed, as well as representatives of human rights groups, would be permitted to attend.
Prosecutors have said previously that a deputy regional police chief who coordinated the action in Zhanaozen had been sued for dereliction of duty, while three other senior officers would stand trial for abuse of power.
Two former mayors of Zhanaozen have been charged with embezzlement of funds earmarked for the town’s social development projects under the sponsorship of local oil firms.
The policemen and officials would be tried separately, said Alexander Mukha, a local human rights worker in Aktau.
There is little sign of rebuilding work in Zhanaozen, where burned-out offices and shopping centres are disguised by draped images of pastoral scenes of grazing sheep and camels.
But there are signs of life slowly returning to normal. Music blared from white limousines as newlyweds and their families, drinking champagne, drove around town.
“Life is good again,” said a woman among a jovial group of shoppers returning from a makeshift food market. “The only problem is that a kilogramme of beef has jumped to 1,500 tenge from 600 tenge just a few months ago.”
But the wounds of many residents run deep.
“Every local believes that they (the accused) are not guilty,” said Amankhan Tabyldiyev, a 70-year-old pensioner. “This was not done by the people.”
Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana; Editing by Robin Paxton