Unbelievable Incident of Great Significance to Berezovka

Local authorities refuse to explain the reasons for a police “attack” on local residents

Denis Dashkov
Respublika
December 24, 2004

To say that the events that took place in Burlinsky Raion in Western Kazakhstan Oblast do not pay tribute to the leadership of that raion is to say nothing. The director of the Western Kazakhstan branch of the International Bureau for Human Rights and Adherence to the Law, Pavel Kochetkov, who we approached for assistance and confirmation, affirms that this is the first time he has encountered such a blatant lack of limits.

In Burlinsky Raion, there is a village with the beautiful name, Berezovka (Birch Tree). But, unfortunately, the air in this place has anything but the aroma of birches. Usually it smells like hydrogen sulfide because Berezovka is located approximately three kilometers from the Karachaganak Oil and Gas Condensate Field.

“The environmental situation in Berezovka,” write villagers in their collective complaint to President Nazarbaev, “gets worse with every year. According to data from the Regional (Oblast) Ecology Department, in the third quarter of 2004, 25 thousand tons of airborne emissions were emitted from the field. Many villagers have skin ailments, which they did not have before the development of the Karachaganak field. Since 1998 when the development of the field began, the health of all the village residents has dramatically deteriorated: villagers have experienced dramatic losses in vision and hearing, they suffer from headaches, bone illness, ailments of the cardiovascular system, and anemia.”

Discussions about the need to relocate the village have been conducted for several years, including at the government level. However, the discussions are not moving forward; Berezovka residents have begun to defend themselves and their families.

“IT WAS HORRIBLE!”

As written in the aforementioned complaint, the villagers asked an environmental nonprofit organization to help them organize blood analysis at a private medical clinic in the city of Aksai. People participated in order to find out how the toxic emissions from the field are impacting their health.

Along with the Berezovka residents who traveled to Aksai on December 11 were representatives of the international environmental nongovernmental organization, Crude Accountability, Kate Watters, from the United States, and Aleksey Knizhnikov, from Russia.

The villagers arrived at the polyclinic in small groups, and gave blood samples for analysis. However, when the first group exited the polyclinic, people in state and police uniforms approached them.

“Without showing any documents they started to grab women and tried to force them into cars to take them to the police department,” wrote the authors of the collective complaint. “The women broke loose, they were afraid, insulted and humiliated…in the medical center the police unceremoniously and urgently investigated the women’s goal at the medical center, asking tactless questions. Everyone was scared and traumatized.” According to the Berezovka residents, what took place at that moment was very similar to an operation to arrest criminals.

Experts from Crude Accountability, who were also at the medical clinic, were individually interrogated in one of the medical offices. And after the interrogation, two men took the American citizen away in a car without a license plate to an unknown destination.

It later became known that they took her to the Burlinsky Regional Local Administration (Burlinsky Raion Akimat) building and into an office with six men. For about an hour she was required to answer questions asked by unidentified individuals. They asked about the goal of her trip to the Republic of Kazakhstan, obviously dissatisfied with the explanation that she had come to Berezovka to conduct an educational seminar about environmental legislation and the right of citizens to environmental information.

According to her, they also demanded that she write a statement saying that she would not participate in this seminar, and not help Berezovka resident Svetlana Anosova, the leader of the initiative group, demand relocation of Berezovka from the danger zone. [She refused to write anything.] In her comments to the local media about the events of that day, Kate Watters said, “It was terrible! I have not seen anything like it, even in Uzbekistan…”.

THE RIGHT TO HAVE NO RIGHTS

It is likely that Ms. Watters had not imagined how difficult it would be to conduct the seminar. As described in the letter to the President, simply getting permission to hold the seminar was difficult, and although it was done properly, it wasn’t enough.

On December 12, representatives of the Berezovka Akimat and employees of the Burlinsky region police arrived at the village musical school where the seminar was being held. After examining the documents of the specialists conducting the seminar, a police officer declared that the seminar itself was illegal because permission to hold it had not been given, and that he would participate in the seminar himself.

“During this time, while the seminar was going on, two police cars were parked near the music school,” the collective Berezovka complaint to the head of the government reports. “During the seminar, a police employee unceremoniously entered the hall and started to film the participants with his video camera. This caused a great shock among the residents, because this same person had participated in the events the day before, filming the women as they entered the medical center.”

It is difficult to imagine a better illustration for a seminar on human rights than the presence of the police. Especially in our legal state.

But what motivated the authorities to create this absurd, inexplicable spectacle?

Why was it necessary to intimidate patients at a medical center? To create agitation around a completely ordinary event like an educational seminar? To create a conflict with a foreign citizen? Is it really only the desire to hide from the world the real picture of the region’s environmental poverty?

“In my years of working with a human rights organization,” said Pavel Kochetkov, “this is the first time I have seen such widespread effrontery by individual employees of so called law enforcement bodies, who are tasked with protecting those same applications of the law. It looks as though they acted by order of the Burlinsky Akimat. Isn’t it strange that the object of their force was not criminals, not members of the opposition, but average citizens who wanted to understand the state of their own health? According to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the most important and inherent rights of a citizen are to life, health and a clean environment. The police applied force against women in front of their children only because the women wanted to give their blood for analysis. This violence without any basis was also carried out against a foreigner, and a citizen of the United States, at that. I think that Americans can defend their citizens from criminal encroachment. But who will protect the citizens of Kazakhstan?”

Translation by Crude Accountability