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Kazakhstan: Appeals Hearing Should Vindicate Labor Rights

Labor Lawyer Should Not Have Been Convicted for Protected Free Speech

September 26, 2011 Update:

On September 26, 2011, the Mangistau Regional Court upheld on appeal a lower court verdict against the union lawyer Natalia Sokolova. On August 8, the Aktau City Court had found Sokolova guilty on charges of “inciting social discord” and “active participation in illegal gatherings” and sentenced her to six years in prison. She was also barred from engaging in “civic work” for three years.


During the appeals hearing, the defense was able to present independent linguistic expert analysis, witness testimony and video material. Sokolova also spoke on her own behalf.


The Mangistau Regional Court upheld Sokolova’s conviction, ruling that her language and advice to workers on issues of wage disparity amounted to the criminal act of inciting social discord.  Human Rights Watch considers the criminal offense of “inciting social discord” under Kazakh law to be vague and overbroad, in violation of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association.


Instead of upholding legal protections for legitimate trade union activity, the appeals court endorsed the government’s violations of Sokolova’s free expression and association rights, Human Rights Watch said. 


Sokolova’s husband Vassiliy Chepurnoi told Human Rights Watch that Sokolova plans to appeal the ruling to a higher court.


Note:The original version of this news release erroneously stated that Natalia Sokolova was found guilty of “organizing illegal gatherings,” when according to the August 8 verdict she was found guilty of “actively participating in illegal gatherings.” Both are criminal offenses under article 334, part 2 of Kazakhstan‘s criminal code. 


(Berlin) – The upcoming appeal hearing for a labor union lawyer should comply with international fair trial standards and uphold legal protection for legitimate trade union activity, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 15, 2011, the Mangistau Regional Court will hear the appeal of Natalia Sokolova, a labor union lawyer sentenced to six years in prison in for “inciting social discord” and “actively participating in illegal gatherings.” Sokolova is currently serving the sentence imposed after what appeared to be a politically motivated prosecution following labor unrest in the oil and gas sector in western Kazakhstan.


“Advising oil workers about their rights is not a criminal act, and Natalia Sokolova should be freed at once,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sokolova’s prosecution and conviction set a dangerous precedent for attacks on freedom of association in Kazakhstan. The court hearing gives the judicial system a chance to uphold international standards in her case.”


Since November 2010, Sokolova had been representing workers seeking a wage increase in negotiations with KarazhanbasMunai, a Kazakh-Chinese joint venture and subsidiary of KazMunaiGas, Kazakhstan’s national oil and gas company.


After labor negotiations broke down in January, and following worker claims of interference in union activities, workers at KarazhanbasMunai and its affiliate companies began a partial hunger strike on May 8 and downed tools on May 17, on the grounds they were no longer fit to work.


Sokolova was detained on May 24 and sentenced to eight days of administrative detention, after authorities accused her of organizing an unsanctioned meeting of oil workers outside the Mangistau region police station in Aktau. Before she was released, authorities opened a criminal investigation on charges of ‘inciting social discord’ and remanded her to custody.


On August 8, the Aktau City Court sentenced Sokolova to six years in prison and barred her from engaging in “civic” work for three years for allegedly “inciting social discord” and “actively participating in illegal gatherings.” Sokolova denied all the charges. 


Sokolova was prosecuted because the Kazakh authorities alleged that herlanguage on issues such as wage disparity amounted to inciting social discord.Prosecuting a trade union representative or a lawyer for defending workers’ interests and advising them on wage discrepancies is incompatible with Kazakhstan's international human rights obligations, said Human Rights Watch.


“The criminal offense of ‘inciting social discord’ is vague and undermines basic rights to freedom of expression and association,” said Williamson. “Sokolova’s rights to speak out on workers’ rights are protected under international law.”


According to people who attended the trial, the presiding judge refused to admit into evidence video recordings that would have bolstered Sokolova’s defense and denied her motions to summon witnesses.


Sokolova’s husband, Vassiliy Chepurnoi, told Human Rights Watch that during the trial Sokolova argued that she did not organize the strike or any illegal meetings, but acted in her official capacity as the union’s lawyer, appearing at the invitation of workers who wished to consult with her about wages and coefficient payments. 


More than 800 workers signed a statement attesting to the fact Sokolova did not organize the work stoppage on May 17 and that the workers themselves requested her legal advice about their rights. This statement was submitted to the trial court for consideration.


In mid-May several thousand workers in the oil sector staged strikes and labor protests in western Kazakhstan demanding higher wages, revision of collective agreements, and non-interference in the work of unions. The strikes were found illegal in local courts. However, hundreds of workers continue to strike at KarazhanbasMunai and its affiliate companies in Aktau, as well as at OzenMunaiGas, a Kazakhstan-owned subsidiary of KazMunaiGas in Zhanaozen. 


Since the strikes began, more thana dozen workers have been fined and sentenced on administrative charges for participating in strikes. In addition, on June 30, authorities detained OzenMunaiGas employee Akzhanat Aminov on criminal charges of “organizing an illegal gathering” and remanded him in custody. On June 2, Aminov had been fined for allegedly participating in the strike.


On August 17, at a hearing in Aktau the Zhanaozen City Court sentenced Aminov to a two-year suspended prison sentenceon grounds that he had led the strike at OzenMunaiGas by giving orders to workers over the phone. His colleagues told Human Rights Watch that Aminov did not actually take part in the strike, but simply brought water to the workers one day.


According to the verdict, Aminov explained that “he gave advice to the workers by phone, but he could not imagine that this constituted organizing [the action], he thought that he was just helping the workers restore their violated rights.” Aminov was released from custody after his conviction, but still faces strict restrictions, including a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and check-ins with the police three times a month.


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