August 15, 2019 Update: Erlan Baltabay was released from prison on August 9 under a pardon decree issued by Kazakhstan president Kassym-Jomart Tokaev. His prison sentence was replaced with a fine of an undisclosed amount.
In yet another development that tightens the authorities’ stranglehold on Kazakhstan’s independent labor movement, a Kazakh court on Wednesday sentenced Erlan Baltabay, a trade union leader affiliated with the now-closed Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK), to seven years in jail. The court also banned him from engaging in civic activities, such as trade union activism, for seven years.
Last month, the world’s authoritative international labor rights body, the International Labor Organization (ILO), held a special review of Kazakhstan, criticizing it for its “persistent lack of progress” on fulfilling its labor rights commitments. The ILO called upon the Kazakh government to “ensure that the KNPRK and its affiliates enjoy the full autonomy and independence of a free and independent workers’ organization, without any further delay.” Unfortunately, Baltabay’s sentencing does the opposite.
Baltabay and his lawyer argued in court that the criminal charges levied against him of large-scale misappropriation of funds were politically motivated and unfounded from the start. They explained that the person who made the allegation has no standing to do so under Kazakh law and that authorities should have dismissed the complaint, not brought a criminal case against Baltabay.
The International Trade Union Confederation, of which KNPRK is a member, “harshly condemned” Baltabay’s sentencing, stating the charges were brought “in retaliation for his trade union activism and principled position in support of other [KNPRK] leaders.”
Baltabay is the fourth trade union leader in two years to be criminally convicted or jailed as the government’s continues to crackdown on Kazakhstan’s independent trade union movement.
If recently elected President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev doesn’t want his predecessor’s negative legacy on labor rights to tarnish his own record, he should ensure a swift end to the crackdown on independent trade unions and that Kazakh authorities take meaningful and urgent action to fulfill their ILO obligations.
No one, including Erlan Baltabay, should be jailed for defending workers’ rights and speaking out in their defense.