December 21, 2011
Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States says an amateur video showing police in the western Kazakh town of Zhanaozen shooting at unarmed protesters as they flee is “shocking” and that the government is planning an investigation.
Erlan Idrissov made the comments on December 21 at a Washington press conference following several days of protests by striking and unemployed oil workers in the country’s oil-rich Caspian coastal region.
The video was apparently taken by a witness from her apartment window near the square where the incident happened. It was posted on YouTube on December 20.
Idrissov intimated that government officials had seen the video and planned to investigate:
“I cannot tell you anything specific of this — how this came into being, who made the video, et cetera, et cetera,” he said. “This is for experts to discuss. The events broke out [on] the sixteenth [of December] and you have this on the twenty first. But one thing for sure is that the government is aware of this coverage and at the very top level it has been ensured that this and other similar facts will be thoroughly investigated.”
Idrissov added that, if the video and any other footage like it turned out to be authentic, then “justice will be brought.”
Kazakh authorities have said that 14 people were killed in the violence on December 16 and more than 80 wounded. Protesters have said the death toll is much higher, although their claims can not be independently verified.
The video shows protesters and passersby moving away from the police, who are not yet in the frame. Some of the protesters are throwing rocks at the police.
The sound of shooting can then be heard with police officers advancing behind riot shields. Some protesters are shot as they try to flee. After the shooting, one man lies motionless on the ground, while another limps away. Riot police then move in, some of them drawing weapons and beating protesters on the ground.
The Kazakh authorities have defended their use of force against “hooligans,” including the decision to use firearms.
Officials have said that the police only shot into the air and at the ground and the resulting deaths were due to ricocheting bullets.
“Given the fact that, despite warning shots, mobs continued to attack the police, in order to protect the lives and health of workers trapped, as well as to prevent the spread of weapons in the hands of thugs, the police were forced to apply their service weapons,” Nurdaulet Suindikov, a spokesperson for the attorney-general said on December 17.
President Nursultan Nazarbaev has said that the police acted within their authority under the law.
Witnesses to the unrest have contradicted the authorities’ version, claiming that police deliberately shot at protesters.
Although protests have continued in recent days across western Kazakhstan, calm has been restored to the center of the protests, Zhanaozen. There has been a heavy deployment of police and security forces and Nazarbaev has imposed a curfew on the city until January 5, 2012.
Internet and mobile phone services went down on December 16 and were only restored on December 20. The Emergency Situations Ministry said that services were interrupted temporarily due to the disruption of electricity.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the government to restore communications and said, “there is some indication that the government ordered the shut down of at least some mobile, voice, and text services in Zhanaozen.”
Written by Luke Allnutt and Richard Solash with reporting by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service