Five policemen accused of shooting protesters during deadly clashes in west Kazakhstan last December have gone on trial.
At least 15 people were killed and more than 100 wounded after police tried to clear a square in the town of Zhanaozen, which for six months had been occupied by striking oil workers demanding better pay and conditions.
Police said they fired at the protesters in self-defence, but witnesses accused them of firing indiscriminately at unarmed workers, GlobalPost reported at the time.
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After initially laying the blame squarely on the protesters, the emergence online of camera phone footage appearing to show police beating and shooting at unarmed civilians led the authorities to open a criminal investigation into the incident, according to the BBC.
Critics of the government say the five policemen on trial are medium or low-ranking officers, who are unlikely to have ordered police to open fire on the strikers.
Rights activists have also called for the trial of 37 former oil workers – eight of whom are being charged with organizing the unrest – to be halted.
The workers’ monthly wages, roughly double the national average of $620, had been eroded by rising food prices and service costs in the remote region, where Kazakh families traditionally have many children and women are usually housewives, Reuters reports.
According to the Agence France Presse, the December riots prompted one of the biggest shake-ups among Kazakhstan’s rulers since the country secured independence from the Soviet Union two decades ago, with President Nursultan Nazarbayev removing his son-in-law and presumed heir Timur Kulibayev from his position as head of the vast state holding company Samruk-Kazyna.
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