AKTAU, Kazakhstan, June 4 (Reuters) – Thirteen people were jailed on Monday for rioting in a Kazakh oil town, prompting courtroom scuffles between relatives and police at the end of a 10-week trial that followed deadly labour unrest in the Central Asian state.
Twenty four of the 37 defendants accused of rioting in the town of Zhanaozen last December were freed by the court in the western city of Aktau. Three were acquitted and the remainder amnestied or given suspended sentences.
The violence, in which at least 14 people were killed, shattered Kazakhstan’s image of stability and posed the most serious challenge to President Nursultan Nazarbayev in more than two decades in charge of the oil-producing former Soviet state.
Police used live rounds in Zhanaozen after months of protests by sacked oil workers erupted into riots on Dec. 16, the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union.
Relatives of the 37 defendants crammed into a sweltering courtroom inside a converted youth centre to hear the verdicts. The open trial, which began on March 27, was held in the Caspian port city of Aktau, 145 km (90 miles) west of Zhanaozen.
Judge Aralbai Nagashybayev took more than three hours to read out the verdicts, pausing to drink water and wipe sweat from his brow. Sixteen defendants were given two-year suspended terms, while 12 were jailed for between three and six years.
Roza Tuletayeva, one of two women on trial, received the longest prison term, seven years.
After the last sentences were passed, a crowd of female relatives, many of them wailing, tried to break through a police cordon to reach the glass box where the accused were held. Some of the guilty pounded on the glass from within.
“Where’s the truth? Where’s the justice? The authorities have led us all to this tragedy,” an elderly woman screamed.
Many residents of Mangistau, an oil-producing region on the Caspian shore, say Kazakh authorities failed to address the grievances of oil workers, who had demanded higher salaries. They also question why police opened fire.