Shame, Stitch-Up, Hangmen

Gabriel Levy, writing in People And Nature, endorses a drive to:

Free Nurbek Kushakbayev! Support independent workers’ organisation in Kazakhstan!

Trades unionists have launched an international campaign for the release of Nurbek Kushakbayev, who was jailed this month for his part in organising strike action in the western Kazakhstan oil field.

A court in Astana, the Kazakh capital, sentenced Kushakbayev to two-and-half years in jail, followed by a further two-year ban on organising.

Kushakbayev is a trade union safety inspector at Oil Construction Company (OCC), an oilfield service firm based in Mangistau, western Kazakhstan. He is also deputy president of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, which the government banned last year under a law designed to straitjacket unions not controlled by the state.

In January, workers at several oil companies in Mangistau staged a hunger strike in protest at the ban on union federation, to which their workplace organisations were affiliated. Dozens of participants in the hunger strike were arrested. Most were released without charge, but Kushakbayev and another union organiser at OCC, Amin Yeleusinov, were arrested and secretly transported to Astana, more than 1000 kilometres to the east. Yeleusinov is still awaiting trial.

Nurbek Kushakbayev, in the cage for defendants, and his wife, after the verdict. Photo by Radio Azattyk.

Kushakbayev has been found guilty under Kazakhstan’s vicious anti-labour legislation of “instigating an illegal strike”. In court the prosecution claimed that he convinced workers at another oilfield service company, Techno Trading, to go on strike – and he has been ordered to pay compensation of about $80,000 to that firm.

Journalists and human rights activists have raised numerous questions about the prosecution, starting with: why was the trial held in Astana, so far from the place where the so-called “crime” was committed?

The principal evidence against Kushakbayev was an audio recording, made by a trade union official at Techno Trading, who was fitted with a microphone by security service agents and encouraged to converse with Kushakbayev. Not only was the quality of the recording poor, but defence lawyers complained that a translation (from Kazakh, the language in which the conversation was held, to Russian) had twisted Kushakbayev’s words. His “advice” about “striking” was presented to the court as “orders” to “revolt”.

The court’s verdict was greeted with cries of “shame”, “stitch-up” and “hangmen!” from Kushakbayev’s supporters in the public gallery.

Zauresh Battalova of the Fund to Develop Parliamentarism, an NGO campaigning for democratic rights, was reported by Fergana news agency saying: “This is not only a judgment against Nurbek Kushakbayev, but against trade union organisation in general. This two-and-a-half year jail sentence – for someone who professionally undertook his workplace responsibilities and defended workers’ rights – I consider illegal. We can not accept this.”

Tolegen Shaikov, Kushakbayev’s lawyer, said that an appeal would be launched as soon as a full text of the verdict was made available. (For details of the court case, in Russian, see reports here and here.)

Workers’ organisations in the western Kazakhstan oil field suffered a harsh crackdown in 2011, after a six-month strike over pay, working conditions and the right to form independent workplace organisations. A wave of state repression culminated in the shooting of strikers at a demonstration on 16 December that year: 16 were killed and 60 wounded, according to official figures.

Demonstration in January in defence of the independent trade union federation in Kazakhstan

Since then, the government has also lashed out at the democratic political opposition, against trade unions seeking to organise outside the state-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, and against activists who initiated protests last year over changes in the land ownership laws. Nurbek Kushakbayev and Amin Yeleusinov are the latest victims.

An international campaign to defend Kushakbayev and Yeleusinov is highly appropriate, since it is a web of international oil companies who profit from the western Kazakh oilfield where they are fighting for workers’ organisation.

The protests launched so far are supported by IndustriALL, an international trade union organisation formed in 2012 from earlier international union federations of metalworkers; chemical, energy and mine workers; and textile, garment and leather workers.

The Confederation of Labour of Russia, the most prominent independent union organisation there, also supports the campaign. “The conviction of Kushakbayev, who has organised collection action against the enforced liquidation of an independent union organisation, amounts to an open trampling down of civil and labour rights in Kazakhstan”, the Confederation’s president Boris Kravchenko said.

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