Kazakh opposition leader jailed after oil town unrest

AKTAU, Kazakhstan, Oct 8 (Reuters) - An outspoken critic ofKazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was jailed forseven-and-a-half years on Monday for his part in a failedattempt to overthrow the government of the oil-producing CentralAsian state.

Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unofficial Alga! party, wasfound guilty of orchestrating dissent among striking oil workersin the prelude to riots last December that left 15 people deadand dented Kazakhstan's reputation for stability.

Kozlov, 52, denied the charges. Speaking at the end of theseven-week trial on Oct. 1, he described his case as an"undisguised attempt" to stifle civic protest and labour rights.

In more than two decades as president, Nazarbayev, 72, haseschewed democratic freedoms in pursuit of the resource-fuelledgrowth and investment that has made Kazakhstan's economy thelargest in Central Asia.

In recent years, authorities have tried to balance theirdesire to preserve stability and economic growth with efforts toimprove the country's image on the world stage.

Prosecutors had earlier said Kozlov, whose property was alsoconfiscated by the court, had acted under orders from MukhtarAblyazov, an arch-opponent of Nazarbayev and the former head ofBTA bank who fled Kazakhstan in 2009.

Britain granted Ablyazov political asylum as he awaitedembezzlement charges brought by the bank, which he has said werepolitically motivated. But his whereabouts are unknown since hefled after being convicted in February in Britain of contempt ofcourt.

Two independent opposition activists standing trialalongside Kozlov, Serik Sapargaly and Akzhanat Aminov, weregiven suspended sentences of four and three years respectively.

On Dec. 16, police opened fire on protesters, includinghundreds of sacked oil workers, when riots broke out during astreet party in the town of Zhanaozen to mark 20 years ofKazakhstan's independence from the Soviet Union.

At least 14 people were killed. Rioting spread the next dayto the nearby village of Shetpe, where another person died.

(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editingby Mark Heinrich)

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