(Berlin) – Police in western Kazakhstan arrested two trade union leaders on January 20, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The men apparently face prosecution in connection with a hunger strike over the forced closure earlier in January of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan.

Amin Yeleusinov, chairman of an affiliate of the confederation, faces charges of embezzlement of union funds, and Nurbek Kushakbaev, deputy chairman of the confederation, is charged with calling for an illegal strike. An Astana court confirmed a two-month pretrial detention order on January 21. The authorities should release the two pending investigation, and immediately provide credible evidence to support the charges or drop them.

“Arrests are not acceptable in response to a peaceful and non-violent protest and are never a solution,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kazakh authorities should respect the rights of workers to organize trade unions and to strike.”

Amin Yeleusinov.

About 90 oil workers began a hunger strike on January 5 at the Oil Construction Company in Mangistau region, western Kazakhstan. The strikers were protesting the court ruling on January 4 that shut down the confederation. Yeleusinov and Kushakbaev had been participating in the hunger strike. On January 17, more than 400 other oil workers joined the hunger strike, according to media reports. The authorities did not react to their demand to register the confederation, but on January 19 the Mangistau regional court found the hunger strike illegal and ordered workers to leave the company’s premises.

A defense lawyer for Yeleusinov and Kushakbaev told Human Rights Watch that the police neither informed the lawyer nor family members about the arrests. It took two days for a lawyer to get copies of arrest warrants from the police and to be able to visit the men in the pretrial detention facility in Astana. Following the arrests of union leaders, the hunger strike was forced to stop.

On January 22, the Mangistau regional court in Aktau fined 15 oil workers US$135-$340 each for organizing an illegal strike. The court barred a journalist from entering the room to cover the hearing.

On January 23, the same court ordered 28 other participants to pay total compensation of more than 3.5 million tenge (US$10,000) for the damage allegedly caused to the company from the hunger strike. The judge turned down a request from the oil workers to provide them with sufficient time to prepare their defense and to get legal representation, saying that a civil lawsuit could proceed without a lawyer. Another 14 oil workers face similar charges.

Two international trade unions, including the International Trade Union Confederation, have sent letters to the Kazakhstan president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, urging the release of the trade union leaders and an end to the crackdown against the International Trade Union Confederation-affiliated confederation.

Kazakhstan’s international partners, including the European Union, its member states, the United States, and Canada, should urgently press the Kazakh authorities to release the trade union leaders.

“The oil industry is a key sector in Kazakhstan, with many foreign investors and could set an example of best business practices in respect for human rights” Williamson said. “Unfortunately the battle is now on to ensure respect for the most basic rights of workers to organize in the oil industry and others in Kazakhstan’s economy.”