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Kazakhstan: Reactions to Strike Crackdown as Police Brutality Video Emerges

Clashes in the town of Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, on December 16-17, 2011, when a labour strike suddenly broke out in violence, looting and arson leaving at least 14 dead and hundreds of civilians and policemen injured, have been silenced, the authorities say.

The country leaders have come out with official statements and offers of condolence to the victims’ relatives – a step that was tensely expected by the country's bloggers. The government has dispatched 1.2 billion tenge (US $8.5 million) for the reconstruction of the destroyed town, whilst the General Prosecutor's office has announced that preliminary data has already pointed to the organizers and instigators of the disorder.

A special governmental commission was quick to offer jobs in other regions to the striking sacked employees, even proposing to cover their travel and resettlement costs – a step that has proved belated after almost seven months of strike.

Debate online

Since the event the debates in blogs and social networks have become slightly less antagonistic, and the pro-governmental agenda has become much more visible in recent online discussions – especially in comments on news articles and blog posts. Positive reactions and praise of the government's response to the emergency have become so overwhelming, that Shali, a commenter on the country's most popular news site Tengrinews, ironically admits that [ru]:

obviously, moderators of this website, as well as law enforcement bodies, switched to the intensive regime of service

On December 21, however, shocking amateur video footage – taken presumably on December 16 – by some Kazakh women (whose lamentous comments can be heard in the background) appeared on YouTube. It was uploaded by user  and shows a brutal crackdown:

A government spokesman had earlier stressed that weapons had been applied only for self-defense (for example, the deputy chief of Zhanaozen police is still in a coma after an injury received on December 16), or that police were only shooting into the air.

Pete Leonard tweets:

Ok, so the “shooting in the air and in the ground” story from Zhanaozen is already proving to have holes in it

Netizens have been divided again, between those who shared a link to this video with laconic descriptions like “Shoot out” and those who saw it an acceptable practice. Among the latter are Marat Shibutov, who says in comments [ru] to a Facebook post:

They were shooting in legs, so not to kill. That's within the limits of riot suppression.

Sadenka tweets [ru]:

This “how people were shot in Zhanaozen” video is missing parts about “how people were looting and setting town on fire” and about “how people in uniform were defending the town”.

Armanitto points [ru] at the continued information war and doubts that the video was totally amateur:

The video is designed to zombify people for lamentations about the massacre. A template scenario for colored revolutions.

Either way, the video fragment seemingly does not reveal signs of police action in self-defense, or for the protection of civilians or property. Ryzhkina exclaims [ru], asking Kazakh Prime Minister Massimov on Twitter:

@KarimMassimov When will we finally get the answer to the question, how legal it is to shoot at people, and who is going to be responsible for that?

Excessive use of force?

Bloggers called on the government to admit excessive use of force, investigate all deaths and gunshot injuries, and punish those guilty of inadequate use of weapons.

At 8pm on December 21, the Commandant of Zhanaozen made a statement [ru] about the video, saying that the Emergency Prosecutor's Office is holding a special internal investigation into use of lethal weapons by police. He also confirmed that the death toll is 14 and that nobody has tried to distort the actual number of victims. To conclude, the official informed the press of “weaponry, confiscated from the rioters”.

This has been seen by many commenters as a positive and timely step, to make sure that both radicals and enforcement structures are clarifying what is permitted, and what is not.

Sergey Domnin writes [ru] on Facebook:

The court must decide if the use of weapons was justified or not. It seems like it was not – the bullets were not made of rubber […] This deserves a criminal case against the policemen. The fact that they were beating up the injured is a shame.

Pacifist says [ru]:

I watched the video and pondered a lot on it. People are wandering around on the square without clear understanding of what to do. It could have been easy to quiet them down without guns. The police were just seeking even easier ways. Alas.

Meanwhile, Arioh calls [ru] on YouTube viewers to watch the video more carefully:

Who was able to identify real lethal weapons on this “amateur” video? The only gun seen on screen is with a person running in the center. This could actually be a pistol with rubber bullets, which commenters are standing up for. The riot squad officers – as far as I see – have shields in one hand and batons in the other. Could they shoot with the third arm then? The beatings are too much, yes. But, on the other hand, it proves that they hardly were using lethal weapons. Because beating up the dead bodies is too creepy even for the riot squad.

Popular blogger Kreich posts another analysis of the video [ru], suggesting that there were two shooting sides:

Many things were left behind the scenes. […] Most part of the mob and stone-throwers are of no interest to the police; the riot squad's target is a small group to the right – a target at which they conduct an aimed fire […] As for me personally, it is clear that this target was armed (otherwise, why so much attention to it?). What you think – you decide.

[It can be thought] that on this video policemen are shooting at the crowd. No, they don't – the crowd has gone far, and there are no victims there. It can be thought that this is an abuse. No, even on this video you can hear that there was an exchange of fire between two sides.

In comments sniprman posted a photo from a Tengrinews update about confiscated guns and explosives, showing police shields with traces of gunshots.

Armanitto reminds [ru] his readers of provocateurs of the riots and of their masterminds:

Zhanaozen blood is on the hands of those who sent the people against police.

Yuri Dorokhov comments [ru] on how divided the journalistic community and wider public are these days:

Journalists that took a trip to Zhanaozen report on the brutality of the police.
Journalists that attended press briefings report on the brutality of the rioters.
Journalists that did not leave their offices report on the brutality of the masterminders from abroad.
Readers do not believe anyone and hate everybody.

Radik-Temirgaliev draws [ru] a bottom line:

The cracks in our society are turning into gaps. People, who yesterday were chatting as friends in social networks, today are battling in fierce disputes […] Seemingly, both sides are telling the truth. The regime supporters are right that Zhanaozen events were completely illegal, and they were to be suppressed in the most resolute manner. Strikers have stained themselves with pure crime, and organizers must be punished.

But those who speak about the government's fault are right, too. In a country with no free and fair elections or responsible state bodies, people really don't have any other chance to get their dissatisfaction to the authorities, but to stage protests. And here it goes – the mob's rebellion is ruthless.

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