Bullets, beatings and Blair's brutal friend in Kazakhstan

Behind the President's PR effort, unrest is being crushed. Joanna Lillis meets the victims of the violence

In a forlorn town in the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, the hospital is jammed with patients. Some are groaning in the wards, recovering from gunshot wounds; others are fed by intravenous drips; one lies in a coma.

This is the Kazakh oil town of Zhanaozen, where clashes between security forces and protesters this month have left 15 people dead. The normally placid country paints itself as a bastion of stability and a haven for Western investors who have sunk billions into its oil and gas sector.

"I was just passing by and people were running at me," said Bekmurat Turashev, a young oil worker recovering from three gunshot wounds sustained when police fired on demonstrators. "There was shooting. I didn't understand a thing."

Hoping to suppress what some have speculated may be Central Asia's echo of the Arab Spring, Kazakhstan's strongman President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has declared a state of emergency in Zhanaozen. Having brandished the stick, on Monday Mr Nazarbayev tried the carrot, sacking his own son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, a billionaire businessman involved in the lucrative energy industry who was tipped as a successor to the 71-year-old President.

The streets of Zhanaozen teem with riot police, sent to restore order after an industrial pay dispute that had been dragging on for seven months turned violent. Many of Kazakhstan's citizens feel they have not reaped the benefits of the country's natural resources, and it is that sense of unfairness that erupted into protests this month.

The violence, just before next month's parliamentary and local elections, is an embarrassment not only to Mr Nazarbayev but also to his British adviser, Tony Blair. The former Prime Minister was hired this year to form a team of consultants to provide policy advice. Critics said he was using political spin to prop up a corrupt, autocratic regime. A spokesman for his office said he had played no role in the dispute.

Kazakhstan is not as repressive as some of its neighbours, but the politically savvy President has governed for two decades with an iron fist, quashing all opposition. He took 95 per cent of the vote in this year's presidential elections, though there were accusations of electoral irregularities.

The shells of civic buildings and the torched headquarters of the Ozenmunaygaz energy company at the centre of the labour dispute are testament to the violence that ripped through the town. A poster on the charred façade of Ozenmunaygaz has an ironic message: "Congratulations on the Independence Holiday!" alongside a smiling picture of Mr Nazarbayev.

It was on Independence Day, on 16 December, that the turmoil began in Zhanaozen, 1,250 miles west of Kazakhstan's glitzy capital, Astana. The day was meant to celebrate the achievements of this vast country – the size of Western Europe but with just 17 million people – since it hauled itself out of the debris of the Soviet Union's collapse two decades ago and constructed a nation state powered by petrodollars.

But the dream soured. Tempers flared after the Zhanaozen authorities tried to drive protesters from the town square so that they could stage the Independence Day celebrations there. What happened next is disputed: the official version says police fired into the air after being attacked, and that the casualties were caused by ricocheting bullets. Fifteen people were shot dead (another was killed in a nearby town when protests spread); the hospital treated 75 people for gunshot wounds.

A video posted on YouTube appears to show riot police advancing on retreating protesters – unarmed but hurling rocks – then shooting directly at them. Two fall; police start beating one of them with truncheons. Astana has yet to react to the video – though investigators are trying to find who filmed it. Police claim to have exonerating footage showing themselves under attack – but have yet to produce it.

Those patients in Zhanaozen hospital who agreed to talk denied taking part in the protest, saying they were hit as they went about the town. One young man was shot en route to the mosque; an older man had gone outside to smoke but was struck by a bullet. Some of the patients say their injuries came from police beatings. "I don't know why they beat me up," said an elderly man nursing bruises. "They caught me there on the square and beat me there."

Human Rights Watch has aired "profoundly disturbing" allegations of torture in custody that it says caused one death. Astana has not reacted to the allegations, but authorities have pledged to investigate the violence, inviting UN participation. Mr Nazarbayev has already absolved the police and sacked oil bosses for failing to resolve the industrial dispute, in which nearly 2,000 strikers have been fired.

The President now says the strikers' demands were justified and has promised them new jobs. He has blamed "third parties" for stoking the violence, hinting at the involvement of political foes based abroad. His sacked son-in-law had been in charge of overseeing state assets, including the energy company embroiled in the labour dispute. But Kazakhstan's leaders have so far emerged unscathed, leaving sceptics fearing the inquiry will be a whitewash.

"The political stability in Kazakhstan will be watched closely," said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight. "The recent riots will certainly force Nazarbayev to shift his attention from erecting monuments symbolising his legacy to ensuring that the legacy survives once he is out of politics."

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little