BY Gabriel Levy An international trade union campaign is demanding justice for activists jailed in Kazakhstan for their part in the oil workers’ strike movement. Seventeen people were last month sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven year …

BY Gabriel Levy

An international trade union campaign is demanding justice for activists jailed in Kazakhstan for their part in the oil workers’ strike movement.

Seventeen people were last month sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years – despite the fact that, in some cases, they told the court they had been tortured by police before the trial.

Campaigners are also demanding an investigation into a massacre of strikers on 16 December last year, when police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators at Zhanaozen in the oil-producing region of Mangistau, killing at least 16 and wounding at least 64.

There have been solidarity demonstrations with the Kazakh oil workers in Russia and several European countries. An on-line protest, demanding a review of unjust sentences, has been launched by the Confederation of Labour of Russia, the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan and the LabourStart web site.

On 12 July the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, ended her first mission to Kazakhstan by calling for an independent international investigation in to the Zhanaozen massacre.

We call on trades unionists around the world (i) to write to the Kazakh government, demanding the release of the jailed oil workers and investigation of the allegations of torture, and (ii) to demand that the British government takes action too (as it has close links with Kazakhstan and supports the activity of British oil companies there).

Most of the Kazakh prisoners have been convicted under catch-all laws such as one forbidding “incitement of social, national or religious enmity”. Many of the sentences were handed down on 4 June, at the end of a trial of 37 Zhanaozen residents.

Activists and others who had publicly championed the oil workers’ cause received the heaviest punishments: Roza Tuletaeva, a 46-year-old mother of three and the main spokesperson for the striking oil workers, was sentenced to seven years.

Tuletaeva had told the court how she was tortured during interrogation. “I was repeatedly suffocated with a plastic bag … you can not imagine how it feels when there is not enough air to breathe, my eyes were popping out”, she said. Tuletaeva was raped, and an iron rod pressed against her intestinal walls, according to reports by Kazakh opposition journalists.

Other activists who received heavy sentences included a strike leader, Maksat Dosmagamebetov (six years); Tanatar Kaliev, one of the first workers to denounce police torture to the court (four years); Talgat Saktaganov, who had travelled to put the oil workers’ case to European parliamentarians (four years); Naryn Dzharilgasinov (six years); and Kanat Zhusipbaev (six years).

The Zhanaozen verdicts followed those handed down on 21 May in the village of Shetpe, where four activists received between four and seven years. Another six were amnestied, one acquitted and one given a suspended sentence.

Political and labour activists in other parts of Kazakhstan who supported the oil workers are also being held in prison awaiting trial. These include Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the Alga party, the politician Serik Sapargali, former oil worker Akzhanat Aminov and journalist Zhanbolat Mamay. A theatre director who sympathised with the oil workers, Bolat Atabaev, was jailed but then freed on 4 July.

The courts have also punished senior police officers involved in the massacre: on 28 May five of them received sentences of between five and seven years for “abuse of power or official authority, resulting in serious consequences, with the use of weapons”. Three senior officials of the Kazakh national oil company Kazmunaigaz, who embezzled funds designated for development programmes in Zhanaozen, were also jailed on corruption charges.

But the authorities are not being even-handed. Investigations by NGOs have shown that in the 16 December massacre a significant number of victims were shot in the back; that automatic weapons were used; that no non-lethal weapons (e.g. water cannon, tear gas) were deployed prior to the lethal shooting; no attempt was made to detain the protesters; and the number of police officers who opened fire on unarmed protesters was clearly greater than five.

So convictions for “exceeding power or official authority”are absurdly lenient. And, campaigners point out, no police officer has been prosecuted under the Kazakh law that forbids “murder committed in excess of measures necessary to apprehend the offender” by the police.

Those small number of officers who have been jailed have received sentences no longer than activists who did nothing but exercise their right to free speech and organise unarmed protests.

LabourStart campaign

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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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