Responding to criticism from the West, Kazakhstan has invited UN experts to investigate clashes between protesters and police that reportedly left at least 15 people dead. Yet inside the country, human rights activists and opposition members say they’ve been shut out from the remote western city of Zhanaozen, where the violence took place.
 
The clashes broke out on December 16, Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. Oil workers, who have been on strike for six months over wage disputes and firings, were holding a demonstration in Zhanaozen’s main square. They reportedly became angry when Christmas market tents began being installed in the square, which they saw as a ruse to force them out. According to the authorities, some of the protesters then went on a rampage, destroying the installations and setting fire to the local oil company headquarters, the mayor’s office and a hotel. The police responded by shooting live rounds.
 
An amateur video surfaced online Tuesday showing the police apparently shooting at fleeing protesters, an incident the government has promised to investigate.
 
 
Protests in support of the Zhanaozen strikers followed in cities throughout the region, with one reported death in the village of Shetpe. In Aktau, protests have continued daily, but have remained peaceful.
 
Authorities say Zhanaozen is now quiet; a state of emergency has been declared there until January 5. After the clashes, all mobile phone and Internet services were disconnected by the authorities for four days. A self-appointed commission of opposition members tried to reach the city to investigate, but were turned away by the police.
 
The oil-rich country has been ruled by the same leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, for two decades. He has been lauded for ensuring his country’s stability and economic growth, but criticized for his intolerance of dissent.

"The authorities haven’t let us into the city. If everying's fine there, shouldn't they let us in?"

Aizhangul Amirova is a member of the People’s Front, a Kazakh opposition group.
 
Myself and several other human rights activists wanted to go to Zhanaozen to see what’s happening and talk to people there. Zhanaozen residents are afraid to talk and don’t trust the press, so we wanted to see the situation for ourselves.
 
We’ve been trying to get in for several days now, but the authorities haven’t let us in the city. The roads are blocked by men in Hummers armed with Kalashnikovs. If, as they’re saying, everything’s fine there, and everything has calmed down, shouldn't they let us in? But for now, only journalists from the official state television stations are permitted to enter the city. Everybody else – human rights activists, politicians, and other journalists – are banned from it. I’m a journalist as well, writing for an opposition paper. But the authorities have told me: “We won’t let you in.” So apparently they do not want the truth to get out.
 
Zhanaozen has been shut down. People are fleeing the city. They come here, to Aktau, where we are staying, to ask us for help. Wednesday morning, for instance, I got a call from a woman, also an activist. All she managed to say was: “They’ve come after me. I’m in a prosecutor’s office.” “They’ve come after me” is what people say when they know they’re in major trouble. We’re getting reports that many people are being arrested in Zhanaozen right now. The authorities go from house to house, pry the doors open and take people out. We don’t know if it’s the police, the OMON  [counter-terrorism units] or other forces – they do not show any identification.
 
In Aktau, where I am now, there are protests every day. The police haven’t attacked these protesters, but we have reports that they are being intimidated. The police are telling people that if they don’t stay away from the protests, they will lose their jobs. So people are getting scared. Tuesday, there were about 2,000 protesters out in the main square; Wednesday, there were much less.”
 
This video shows the Zhanaozen protest descending into violence on December 16. Video posted to YouTube by kanat88ast