BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Human rights officials are calling for the suspension of a trial of more than three dozen people who say they were tortured after being arrested for taking part in protests in Kazakhstan.
"In order to show that there is a zero-tolerance policy toward torture in places of detention, the trial should be suspended contingent on an impartial, independent and thorough investigation into these allegations," said Mihra Rittmann, a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
The defendants face charges including arson, looting, assault and "inciting social discord" during demonstrations in December. Sixteen people died after police opened fire on protesters in the town of Zhanaozen, in Kazakhstan's oil-producing region of Mangistau.
Among those on trial in Mangistau's capital of Aktau are oil workers who had been outspoken in their demands for better pay and conditions, as well as leading opposition politicians.
During the trial, which began March 27, some defendants have told of being beaten, partially suffocated with plastic bags, deprived of sleep and threatened with rape during their detention.
"Most of the 37 defendants have been through [torture]," said Galym Ageleuov of the Almaty-based human rights group Liberty, who has been monitoring the court proceedings in Aktau.
Mr. Ageleuov added that 10 of the defendants have bullet wounds and one is suffering from tuberculosis contracted in while in detention.
What had started as peaceful demonstrations by oil workers who been on strike since May 2011 transformed into riots on Dec. 16 in the town square, where celebrations marking Kazakhstan's 20 years of independence were due to take place.
The events in Zhanaozen are seen as the most significant public unrest in the country's post-Soviet era, during which time President Nursultan Nazarbayev's rule has been virtually unchallenged.
Andrei Grishin, a journalist working with the Kazakhstan International Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, says the government is using Zhanaozen as an excuse to target opposition politicians.
"Why not use it against those who have long been a thorn in the [government's] side?" he said. "Zhanaozen is a great opportunity to get rid of these people."
After the Jan. 15 parliamentary elections in which Mr. Nazarbayev's ruling Otan Party won more than 80 percent of the vote, protests erupted in the economic center of Almaty and the capital, Astana, over the government's handling of Zhanaozen and accusations of electoral fraud and human rights abuses.
The protests have become a monthly event, with the next planned for Saturday.
"The concerns that are coming out in these rallies address the arrests of political opposition activists who are being charged with inciting social discord, [using] an over-broad and vague law that Human Rights Watch believes can be used to incriminate activity that is protected under international human rights law — [such as] freedom of speech issues," Ms. Rittmann said. "[The rallies also] raise concerns about the investigation ... as well as the trial itself."
Human Rights Watch reports that many of those taking part in the rallies this year have been arrested and placed under administrative detention for short periods of time, or fined.
"Protests that are not in line with government policies generally are not given permission to go ahead, so they are seen as unsanctioned and there are consequences for those who participate in them," Ms. Rittmann said.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Almaty, many view the allegations being made at the trial as predictable.
"I am not surprised, as I believe torture is still used by police here," said Dinara Ibrayeva, a student in Almaty. "The government must check it, and if it is confirmed, law enforcement bodies must be punished. As for defendants, I can't tell whether or not they are guilty. Let's hope for [a] fair trial."
• Edda Schlager in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Ruby Russell in Berlin contributed to this report.