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(Berlin) – An economic court in Kazakhstan on January 4, 2017, ordered the permanent closure of an independent trade union body, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling is an egregious violation of the freedom of association and should be quashed.

“By shutting down this trade union organization the authorities have taken a worrying step backwards” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakhstan has made an international commitment to protect freedom of association, but this decision does the opposite”

An economic court in Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, held a hearing on January 4 to review a case filed by the Justice Ministry on December 5, 2016, against the confederation. The court did not allow the confederation to present its case and ruled the same day. Three other affiliated industrial unions, representing medical workers, domestic workers and mine workers, are at risk of liquidation in a related legal action by the ministry.

Larisa Kharkova. © 2016 Human Rights Watch

The Justice Ministry accused the confederation of failing to confirm its status as a national union within six months of its registration in accordance with a 2014 restrictive trade union law. The law imposes burdensome registration requirements on trade unions that do not respect internationally protected workers’ rights to organize.

A defence lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the court had previously rejected a union request to postpone the hearing to allow sufficient time to prepare, and denied all motions by the union, such as to question witnesses, that would have given it the opportunity to present its case.

Larisa Kharkova, the confederation president, told Human Rights Watch that the way the hearing was conducted underscored that the judiciary had no interest in hearing the trade union’s case. “It was a deliberate liquidation where a judge was instructed to shut us down,” she said. “All procedural norms were forgotten.”  

The judge made no reference in the hearing or the ruling to the right to organize or to basic international trade union protections. It effectively ignored Kazakhstan’s legal obligations to respect such international standards.

In a recently-released report We Are Not the Enemy’: Violations of Workers Rights in Kazakhstan,” Human Rights Watch documented how the confederation and its affiliated industrial and local unions faced registration processing delays at the Justice Ministry or that their applications were returned on technical grounds, such as for minor inconsistencies in translation, as they tried to comply with registration requirements.

Separately on January 9, authorities opened a criminal case against Kharkova on charges of embezzlement from the confederation, searched her home and confiscated her computer, her lawyer said. Police officers threatened to take further action against Kharkova unless she steps down as confederation president. The union views the case against Kharkova as an act of intimidation to deter the union from appealing the decision to shut it down. The union has not yet appealed because of concerns that Kharkova, her family or the union will suffer further retaliation.

The authorities should immediately provide credible evidence to support the embezzlement charges or drop them, end this harassment of independent trade union activists, and allow trade unions to register and function in line with international protections and standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Kazakhstan’s key economic partners, including the European Union, its member states, and the United States should press the government to quash the liquidation and uphold its international obligations to respect basic workers’ rights.

“If Kazakhstan wants to fulfill its global ambitions, also as an international investment hub, it should start by upholding international labor standards,” Williamson said.  


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