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Amin Yeleusinov. © 2017 Sania Toiken (RFE/RL)

(Berlin) – A Kazakh court on May 16, 2017, sentenced a trade union leader to two years in prison on politically motivated embezzlement charges, Human Rights Watch said today. In addition, the trade unionist, Amin Yeleusinov, 55, is banned from engaging in any trade union activities for five years, will have any “illegally obtained property” confiscated, and must pay US$26,300 in damages. Yeleusinov’s conviction is the latest development in an ongoing crackdown on independent labor movement in Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said.

The targeting of Yeleusinov for prosecution appears to be motivated by the government’s discontent over protests in western Kazakhstan in January. Oil Construction Company workers staged a hunger strike against the closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, after which Yeleusinov and his colleague, Nurbek Kushakbaev, were arrested.

“Yeleusinov is the second trade union leader to be imprisoned in Kazakhstan in the last two months,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakh officials should know that imprisoning trade union leaders in retaliation for legitimate trade union activities is a serious violation of the right to freedom of association.”

Yeleusinov, chairman of the Oil Construction Company trade union, was convicted on criminal charges of “large-scale embezzlement,” “publicly insulting a state official,” “disobeying a state official,” and “committing a violent act against a state official.” The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

On May 16, an Astana court approved an agreement between the prosecutor and Yeleusinov, in which Yeleusinov was given a lesser sentence of two years if he admitted guilt.

Tolegen Shaiqov, a defense lawyer for Yeleusinov, told Human Rights Watch that Yeleusinov only agreed to a deal after he learned that Kushakbaev had been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Yeleusinov suffers from rheumatic heart disease and was worried his poor health would not last a seven-year jail term, his lawyer said.

Shaiqov said that Yeleusinov did not get a fair trial. Among other concerns, during the investigation and trial, both an investigator and the judge denied defense motions to gain access to exculpatory financial documents that had been confiscated during the investigation.

Another trade union leader, the president of the now-shuttered Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, Larisa Kharkova, is also under investigation on alleged embezzlement charges. Kharkova remains under close police surveillance and her freedom of movement is restricted, a union colleague told Human Rights Watch.

International bodies, including the International Trade Union Confederation and the former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly, Maina Kiai have expressed serious concerns about harassment of trade union leaders and the closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan in recent months.

“Yeleusinov and Kushakbaev are paying a hefty price with their freedom for defending the rights of workers in Kazakhstan,” Rittmann said. “The Kazakh government should end this crackdown on the independent trade union movement and let workers organize freely.”

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