Kazakhstan jails strike lawyer

2011-08-09 11:32

Almaty, Kazakhstan – A lawyer was sentenced to six years in prison for inciting social discord after she advised striking oil workers in a labour dispute, a rights activist in Kazakhstan said today.

Natalya Sokolova was sentenced by the Aktau city court in energy rich western Kazakhstan for organising “illegal” gatherings and protests by oil workers at the KarazhanbasMunai oil field, Galym Ageleuov said.

“She basically suffered for her professional activities as a lawyer,” said Ageleuov, an activist and member of an opposition movement “For Free Internet” who was in the courtroom for the proceedings.

The KarazhanbasMunai oil field is a joint Sino-Kazakh joint venture, 50% owned by London-listed Kazmunaigas Exploration Production and 50% by CITIS, China’s biggest state-owned investment company.

Sokolova was accused of “deliberate actions aimed at the incitement of enmity or antagonism”, which carries a 10-year maximum penalty.

She denies all the charges and intends to appeal the court ruling, Ageleuov said, claiming there had been irregularities.

“Witnesses from Sokolova’s side who could have testified in her favour were not invited,” he said.

The labour dispute over wage disparities has been going on for more than two months. Management at Kazmunaigas said it fired more than 400 workers since the strikes began. The company has said the strikes may cut its output by some 800 000 tons or 6% of its total output.

This has been one of the biggest labour actions in the history of Kazakhstan, a rare event in a country where the authorities show little tolerance of dissent.

The KarazhanbasMunai management accused Sokolova of organizing the mass protests and strikes by oil workers over wage disparities between local and foreign workers.

Sokolova was arrested on May 24, a week after hundreds of oil workers first went on strike.

Before the verdict was announced, human rights organisations called on Kazakhstan to respect union activities.

“Kazakh authorities shouldn’t misuse the criminal law to quash labour union activity,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, last week.

“These kinds of tactics have no place in a society based on democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

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