ALMATY, Kazakhstan - Hundreds of opposition demonstrators on Saturday denounced the trial over last year's violence in western Kazakhstan calling for the release of prisoners who they said testified under torture.
"We demand that the Zhanaozen trial be annulled because all the testimonies were obtained through torture," the protestors said at the end of the rally in the city of Almaty.
About 800 people gathered near a central concert hall shouting slogans like "Freedom to oil workers! Freedom to political prisoners!" and reciting poems in Kazakh and Russian.
Thirty-seven people are now on trial, charged with organising mass riots in Zhanaozen, a city in the oil-rich Mangistau region. A months-long strike of oil workers in the city descended into bloody riots that left at least 15 people dead last December.
Police dispersed the oil workers' protest, and several officials also face jail time after police opened fire on the crowd during the crackdown and tortured one person to death in police detention.
Human Rights Watch this week called on the government to suspend the Zhanaozen trial to investigate all torture claims. Many of the 37 defendants said they were beaten, suffocated, and threatened with rape or harm to their families, the rights group said.
Opposition activists have said they, too, have been threatened after speaking out about Zhanaozen events. A journalist who covered the aftermath of the violence for an independent newspaper was nearly beaten to death last week.
"All opposition parties are neutralised. Their leaders are either in jail or have been blackmailed into shutting their mouths... Everyone is being threatened," opposition activist and artist Kanat Ibragimov said at Saturday's rally.
Unrest in Zhanaozen was the worst in Kazakhstan's post-Soviet history and came just weeks before the country's President Nursultan Nazarbayev was re-elected as leader of Central Asia's largest economy.
The opposition has staged monthly rallies to commemorate the victims of the clashes and accused the authorities of triggering the violence by firing on the laid-off oil workers.