Roza Tuletaeva starts hunger strike as prison regime refuses medical aid
April 24, 2013
On 22nd April, Roza Tuletaeva, one of the activists from the Zhanaozen oil workers’ strike, started a hunger strike. She has taken this extreme step because she has been refused essential medical aid at the women’s prison colony in Atyrau, where she is currently serving a lengthy jail sentence. She was arrested after the notorious massacre of Zhanaozen oil workers’ by government forces in December 2011 and sentenced to seven years in prison (later reduced to five, on appeal), on the charge of “organising mass disorder.”
According to friends and relatives of Roza, she is suffering from chronic liver disease. The refusal to provide suitable treatment appears to be intentional revenge by the authorities. It is a form of torture against this political prisoner, who refused to accept that she was guilty as charged.
During her court trial, Roza experienced torture and sexual harassment at the hands of the state security police (KNB), and the lives of her children were threatened. Nevertheless, she refused to give evidence against herself and her co-strikers, refused to give evidence against Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the Party Alga (who was later sentenced to a prison sentence), and exposed the methods of the investigators during her trial.
Local human rights organisations have demanded the immediate provision of medical assistance to Roza Tuletaeva and have also demanded the right to visit her to make a proper assessment of her health. Clearly she is in danger, her health is already undermined and now her life is at risk. The hunger strike is eroding her health even further.
Campaign Kazakhstan calls for protest messages against these further attempts at torture, which are organized by government forces with the aim of breaking the will of Roza and her comrades and of anyone else prepared to resist the authorities. By attempting to physically annihilate Roza Tuletaeva, they are trying to scare all oil workers, and those who live in the Mangystau region, from further protest actions.
Hands off Roza Tuletaeva!
Freedom to the arrested oil-workers and political prisoners in Kazakhstan!
Please send urgent protests to the Embassy of Kazakhstan in your country (a list can be found here) and copies to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Kazakhstan is a one man dictatorship. Workers across the country are paid starvation wages whilst a tiny minority become fabulously wealthy. When people stand up for their social, human, workers rights, they face vicious repression. Kazakhstan is constantly ranked amongst the lowest in the world for press freedom, human rights, but amongst the highest for corruption and embezzlement. Tony Blair has acted as an apologist for this regime, speaking on its behalf many times.
But this has not stopped people fighting back. The repression is met with a heroic fighback by many in Kazakhstan. Kazakh president Nazarbayev is preparing the way to become the next Mubarrak or Ben Ali.
Aron Atabek, a poet and dissident, has been imprisoned for 5 years now for supporting the struggle of residents of Shanrak. They were evicted with no offer of alternative accommodation. For the ‘crime’ of helping in negotiations with the authorities and the residents, Aron was sentenced to 18 years. He has been in solitary confinement for 2 years, denied access to his family. This is illegal under international law. We demand his immediate release, along with all those imprisoned as a result of the Shanrak struggle.
Human rights activist and lawyer Vadim Kuramshin has recently been sentenced for 12 years in a retrial, after a jury threw out the charges a few months earlier. Getting rid of all pretense of a fair trial, neither Vadim nor his representatives were not allowed to attend.
Vadim is in prison simply because he is a throrn in the side of the regime, highlighting the many human rights abuses that occur throughout Kazakhstan. For more details on the campaign for Vadim, see our website below.
Who are Campaign Kazakhstan?
Campaign Kazakhstan fights for democratic, social and workers’ rights in Kazakhstan. Through its campaigning material and its web-site, it highlights the conditions facing workers there and organises international solidarity. Many trade union branches and human rights groups have supported Campaign Kazakhstan internationally. Paul Murphy MEP has raised the campaign’s demands in the European Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn MP, Alan Meale MP and Billy Bragg have all supported the campaign.
Campaign Kazakhstan appeals to human rights and press freedom organisations, trade unionists and all those who support democratic, social, worker and political rights in Kazakhstan to:
a) Add their names to the list of sponsors and supporters of the campaign
b) Send letters of protest about the denial of democratic rights in Kazakhstan
c) Spread the word about the situation in Kazakhstan
d) Join protests, lobbies and other campaigns
e) Make a donation through the website and ask your colleagues, family and friends to do the same
December 13, 2012 The World Bank Brings Nazarbayev University to Kazakhstan
by Allen Ruff and Steve Horn
A year ago, on Dec. 15, 2011, Kazakhstan state security forces opened fire with U.S.-supplied weapons on oil workers on strike since the preceding May for increased wages and better conditions in the Caspian Sea company town of Zhanaozen. According to the official count, 15 workers died and upwards of 70 were wounded. Unofficial accounts reported much higher number of casualties. Several hundred miles to the east in the capital, Astana, business went on as usual that day for the Western faculty members and administrators at the recently built multi-billion dollar Nazarbayev University, a joint venture involving the country’s authoritarian regime, the World Bank, and a number of major, primarily US “partnering” universities. This is the first of a three-part series, stimulated by news of the “Zhanaozen Massacre” and initial word of “global university” dealings in Kazakhstan.
A number of prestigious, primarily U.S.-based universities are quietly working with the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan under the dictatorial rule of the country’s “Leader for Life,” Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In a project largely shaped and brokered by the World Bank in 2009 and 2010, the regime sealed deals with some ten major U.S. and British universities and scientific research institutes. They’ve been tasked to design and guide the specialized colleges at the country’s newly constructed showcase university.
As a result, scores of academics have flocked to the resource rich, strategically located country four times the size of Texas. They remain there despite the fact that every major international human rights monitor has cited the Nazarbayev regime for its continuing abuse of civil liberties and basic freedoms.
Kazakhstan now serves as a key hub for the application of the World Bank’s “knowledge bank” agenda, a vivid case study of the far-reaching nature of a corporate – and by extension, imperial – higher education agenda. . . .
A court in Mangistau, western Kazakhstan, has rejected appeals by 12 oil workers against prison sentences ranging from two to six years, imposed for their part in last year’s strikes.
One activist, Roza Tuletaeva, had her sentence cut from seven years to five – but her family fear this is part of a campaign to force her to give evidence against political oppositionists in an upcoming trial. Threats against Tuletaeva’s children by the KNB security service have made her suicidal, they warn.
The appeals were heard, and almost all rejected, by judge Maksat Beisembaev in the Mangistau district court on 2 August. The prisoners were not permitted to attend the hearing.
Lawyers appealed against the sentences on the grounds that the defendants had admitted their part in last year’s protests; that they had no previous convictions; that in some cases guilt had not been proved; and that most of the prisoners had underage children and were in many cases the household breadwinner.
The appeal verdicts were another blow to the community of Zhanaozen, the oil town where on 16 December police fired on demonstrators demanding improved wages and conditions, killing at least 16 and wounding at least 64.
Prisoners’ families and other oil workers who crowded the court room told journalists that they were “shocked”. They angrily compared the appeal verdicts with those pronounced on two former akims (mayors) of Zhanaozen, Orak Sarbopeev and Zhalgas Babakhanov, who have both been convicted of large-scale corruption and handed two-year conditional sentences.
Human rights activists fear that the pressure on Tuletaeva by the security forces bodes ill for the trial of political oppositionists Vladimir Kozlov, Serik Sapargali and Akzhanat Aminov. They have been charged with “inciting social conflict”, because they supported last year’s strikes by oil workers.
Tuletaeva’s daughter, Aliya, told opposition newspapers that her mother had telephoned her from detention and said that KNB officers had threatened to “do something” to her children.
Aliya believes that Roza Tuletaeva was threatened by the same KNB officer who was tortured her in pre-trial detention. She also thinks that KNB officers forced her mother to sign a declaration against the opposition politician Vladimir Kozlov, but that they are worried she will renounce it in court.
Thousands of kilometres to the north west, in Moscow, three members of the Pussy Riot feminist punk band, who allegedly sang songs against Russian president Vladimir Putin in a cathedral, are on trial for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. They face a possible three-year sentence.
Young people all over Europe have demonstrated in support of Pussy Riot, and a good thing too. The band has received support from Madonna and other pop celebrities. I hope we can build the same level of support for Roza Tuletaeva and the other activists in Zhanaozen – on whom the Kazakh authorities, having already perpetrated the dreadful massacre of 16 December, are exacting vengeance.
The contrast between the huge media coverage of Pussy Riot in western Europe, and the near-total silence about Zhanaozen, is stark.
Pussy Riot are cool and photogenic; the oil workers are not. The Pussy Riot trial is easy to access for the western journalists based in Moscow, some of whom can feel smugly superior that – for all of the last forty years or so! – supposedly blasphemous artists are no longer so crudely targeted in western Europe. Not only the liberal newspapers (Guardian, Independent, etc), but even the right-wing Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, have sympathised.
And there is a political discourse. In the two-dimensional world inhabited by foreign policy “experts”, denouncing Putin is a priority . . . but attacking the Nazarbayev regime in Kazakhstan is more complicated. Putin is against “western interests”, has mistreated “our” oil companies, and has worried Russian private property by jailing oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Nazarbayev has opened Kazakhstan’s doors to foreign investment, and “our” oil companies – British Gas, Agip, ExxonMobil and others – have invested billions in the very western Kazakhstan oil field where the massacre took place.
So I say: support Pussy Riot, by all means. Dance however you want, in a cathedral of your choice. Use irony, blasphemy, conspiracy. . . . But do something about Roza Tuletaeva and the oil workers too. For example, you can:
Over a period of several months, court trials related to the tragic events in Zhanaozen of 16 December 2011 have taken place. Many months of dispute between oil workers and the management of oil companies, with the connivance of the authorities, resulted in disorders, violence and the uncontrolled use of force by police, which caused the death of 17 and injuries to dozens of people. Not only oil workers were killed and injured, but also citizens of Kazakhstan who had no involvement with the labour conflict.
Dozens of people, whose involvement is contestable, were subsequently charged. Many of them were sentenced to different terms in prison. During the process, international observers, representatives of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and OSCE, human rights defenders and journalists recorded numerous violations in the trial processes. Almost all defendants and some of witnesses stated that they were tortured in the course of the investigation, but the trials were not suspended. The trials were conducted in an environment of extreme tensions and close to a state of emergency measures in the region.
The international trade union movement demands that the sentences be reconsidered, that all cases of torture and provocation be thoroughly investigated, and that national legislation that envisages criminal responsibility for “calling for social strife” and that is used selectively to put pressure on trade unionists, human rights activists and public figures, be changed.
Go here to sign a petition to the Kazakhstan authorities.
Last Saturday, Esenbek Ukteshbayev, president of the fighting independent trade union in Kazakhstan, Zhanartu, spoke in London. He brought home to an audience of more than 500 UK workers’ representatives and activists the atrocities carried out by the Nazarbayev regime against striking workers and their representatives. His address brought the sixth National Shop Stewards’ Network conference to its feet out of respect for the tremendous struggle being waged against the murderous dictatorship in his country. (Campaign Kazakhstan)
Zhanaozen city is reportedly surrounded by Internal Ministry troops in advance of the sentencing of the thirty seven oil workers and their supporters on Monday. Supporters of those on trial are planning further protests in Zhanaozen and Aktau.
Only 3 of the 37 have been cleared of all charges. Twenty one of those on trial were sentenced to either 2 or 3 years in prison, with the sentence suspended or, in a couple of cases, subject to amnesty. Thirteen activists, however, received real prison sentences ranging from three years to, in the case of Roza Tuletaeva, seven years.
Roza, a mother of three children, was one of the leading activists in the oil strike. During the trial she related how she nearly suffocated when bags were put over her head during interrogation and she was beaten with iron rods. She suffered other indignities, which she was too embarrassed to tell the court openly as her friends and relatives were present.
It is widely reported in the international press that the events of 16th December resulted from riots caused by the oil workers after seven months on strike. This is an attempt to shift the blame from the Kazakhstan state. The oil workers had planned a peaceful demonstration on 16th December.
Yet according to his court testimony given during this trial, a senior police officer was dispatched with police troops to Zhanaozen on 14 December. Instead of tear gas, rubber bullets or water cannons, weapons and live rounds were issued. Video footage from the conflict shows police firing into unarmed and peaceful protesters, often shooting people in the back. The government admits 15 people were killed, yet no charges have been lodged against the interior minister, who said he had given the order to open fire.
To avoid blame being directed at the regime itself, the General Prosecutor picked out a number of scapegoats from the local authorities and police to put on trial. Undoubtedly guilty of the crimes for which they were charged, they, nevertheless, have served the role of letting higher up figures off the hook.
Five police officers, charged with “exceeding their authority” by shooting live weapons into the crowd, received sentences of between 5 and 7 years. The Head of the Police prison, where a prisoner was so badly beaten that he later died, received 5 years for “not calling an ambulance on time”! A former mayor and three managers of the KazMunaiGaz company also received sentences of seven years for stealing from the city’s funds and from money that should have been paid by KazMunaiGaz to local welfare funds.
More arrests and torture
Even though these sentences appear strict, they are for crimes that resulted in the death of up to 70 people, the torture and death of protesters while in police custody and the theft of literally billions of tenge from state funds. That similar sentences have been handed out to the oil workers and their supporters indicates that the regime has just been taking its revenge on the workers. None of the workers were carrying arms or can be deemed responsible for violent acts, but on the contrary conducted themselves in a peaceful and disciplined way and ended up as the victims of the police massacre and subsequent regime of terror.
It is now reported that another wave of arrests and torture is taking place. Up to 15 more activists from the oil strike, along with leaders of the opposition political party Alga, are expected to be put on trial for “inciting social discontent” with a possible sentence of up to 12 years. Large numbers of trade union activists from the OzenMunaiGaz company are being called in for questioning, in an attempt to intimidate them from organizing a new strike. Following questioning, one 51 year old activist committed suicide.
However, local trade union activists report that the workers are still determined to protest, whether outside the City mayor’s office or by preparing new strikes in the region. According to one of the local leaders, the next trial is being prepared, not to take revenge for the last strike, but to try and prevent the next one.
Six people were convicted last week for instigating riots on Dec. 16 in the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen. Kazakh leaders and prosecutors claimed all along that the massacre was organized by “a group of former oil workers aided by a number of young people,” but this is patently untrue. Even the European Parliament in early March “strongly condemned the violent crackdown by the police forces.”
The workers of Ozenmunaigaz and a neighboring oil company had been on a peaceful seven-month strike over wages and trade union recognition. Even before Dec. 16 they were attacked by riot police. In August, one of their leaders, Zhaksylyk Turbayev, was killed on his way to a union meeting, and a few weeks later the daughter of another activist was killed. Natalya Sokolova, their lawyer, was sentenced to six years in prison.
In the absence of meaningful negotiations either by the employer or the government, the oil workers called for a peaceful demonstration on Dec. 16. They appealed for the resignation of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his government.
The authority’s response was decided in advance. According to his court testimony, a senior police officer was dispatched with police troops to Zhanaozen on Dec. 14. Instead of tear gas, rubber bullets or water cannons, weapons and live rounds were issued. Video footage from the conflict shows police firing into unarmed and peaceful protesters, often shooting people in the back. The government admits that 15 people were killed, while eyewitnesses say the number of victims is much higher — about 70. Nonetheless, no charges have been lodged against the interior minister, who said he had given the order to open fire.
Notably, not one policeman was seriously wounded in the conflict. This undermines the outrageous government claim that “oil workers attacked police officers and innocent bystanders.” It is clear that no attempt was made to use ordinary crowd-control methods, such as tear gas and water cannons. Instead, riot police using automatic weapons opened fire without warning on the unarmed crowd.
Sentences of three to seven years are now being handed down for the 49 oil workers on trial, several of whom had friends and family members killed in the massacre. Yet an incredible picture has emerged during the trials, during which defendants testified about how security forces imposed a curfew and reign of terror, arresting all they thought were linked to the strike.
One defendant, Kairat Edilov, testified that he was offered protection by the police if he agreed to give evidence against 15 others. After refusing, he said the police beat him, covering his head with a bag and nearly suffocating him. He claimed his investigator, Bakyt Mendybayev, put a pistol to his head several times. Other prisoners testified how they had been stripped naked, thrown outside and periodically doused with cold water when temperatures were minus 15 degrees Celsius.
One prosecution witness testified that he had helped one defendant to loot an ATM. But a day later, he returned to testify under his real name and retracted his earlier statement. Explaining his false testimony, he said he was beaten by the police after his arrest on Dec. 27. “I shook all night from fear and cold,” he said. “I couldn’t get hold of myself. I asked the investigator where I should go because the city was under curfew. On my way home, I was again arrested by soldiers. They were in masks and started beating me again.” The police, he said, had threatened to suffocate him with a plastic bag if he did not follow their instructions.
In April, Human Rights Watch issued the following statement: “Kazakhstan needs to show that it has a zero-tolerance policy toward torture by suspending the trial and conducting an immediate, impartial and effective investigation.” Yet on May 11, the Prosecutor General’s Office demanded long prison sentences for those currently on trial.
The Kazakh prosecutor general recently said it is important that “our international partners are able to see that justice is being done.” Yet the government recently refused visas to a delegation led by Paul Murphy, member of the European Parliament, to visit Aktau.
The attempt to blame the Zhanaozen massacre on the strikers without bringing the law enforcement officials who were responsible for the killings and subsequent beatings and torture to justice shows how far Kazakhstan’s authoritarian regime is willing to brutalize its citizens.
Demonstrate – Support oil workers and their communities in Kazakhstan – Protest police killings
at: Kazakh-British Chamber of Commerce 62 South Audley Street Mayfair London W1K 2QR
on: Wednesday 21st December 2011 12 noon
On Friday 17 December, the security forces violently attacked oil workers demanding better living standards in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan. Ten people were shot dead, more than 70 wounded, and 70 arrested, according to the government. Opposition activists and Russian media say that the number of victims could be much higher.
In spite of the massacre, the protests continued on 18 November. There were further clashes in nearby Aktau and Shetpe, and a 20-day state of emergency has been declared.
The Zhanaozen protests are part of a campaign for better pay and conditions by workers in the western Kazakhstan oilfield that started in May, grew in a strike of about 16,000 people in June, and continued through the year. (The Kazakh elite has become rich, thanks to oil – but in Mangistau, the largest oil-producing province, one third of the population are below the poverty line.)
Just like anti-capitalist protesters in Wall Street, the City of London and elsewhere, the Kazakh oil field workers established a “tent city”, in Zhanaozen’s main square, in June. When police tried to break it up in July, 60 of them covered themselves with petrol and threatened to set themselves on fire. Friday’s massacre took place in the same square.
Kazakh oil workers’ communities – we are with you!
Kazakhstan, oil and the City:
The companies where most of the protesting oil workers work are partly owned by Kazmunaigaz Exploration and Production, which is listed on the London stock exchange and has often raised loans from London-based institutions.
The UK is the third largest direct investor in Kazakhstan (after the USA and China).
Tony Blair, the former prime minister, is being paid millions of pounds to lobby in the Kazakh government’s interests. Many other British businessmen and politicians help, too. Richard Evans, the former chairman of British Aerospace, is chairman of Samruk-Kazyna, a state-owned holding company that controls a big chunk of the Kazakh economy.
The oil produced in Kazakhstan is traded in the offices of big oil trading companies and international oil companies in their London offices.
On Friday December 16th a celebration of Independence Day in the Western Kazakhstan city of Zhanaozen ended up with violent clashes between police and protesting oil workers who have been striking since May, demanding wage increases. It has been reported that oil workers planned to have a peaceful rally on Zhanaozen’s main square but were attacked. According to report we have received, armed police were sent against the demonstrators. Some reports say the police used their weapons and some protestors were killed or injured.
Please send a message to the Kazakhstan authorities calling on them to cease violence against their own people.
I call upon the government of Kazakhstan to immediately cease violence against peacefully protesting oil workers and their families in the city of Zhanaozen. I believe that no government should ever use weapons against its own people. Violence against workers exercising their fundamental right to strike is absolutely unacceptable. This situation might have grave social and humanitarian consequences. Therefore I urge you to use all your power to to resolve this situation it in a peaceful and just manner.
Please go here to send this message or your own message to Kazakh authorities.
London listed oil company at centre of Kazakh crackdowns
Today The Guardian reports that at least 10 people have been killed in violent clashes between police and oil workers in Zhanaozen, a small city in western Kazakhstan. Local oil workers have been protesting for higher wages and better working conditions throughout 2011. The oil and gas companies, among them KMG, (KazMunaiGaz) which is 39% owned by investors on the London stock exchange, and Ersai Caspian Contractor, a joint venture owned by Italian firm ENI, have sacked hundreds of workers for striking. Police have responded with arbitrary arrests, detention and shootings. The Financial Times suggests the number of recent casualties could be much higher:
An independent source in Astana put the death count as high as 70, with more than 500 wounded, when police fired on protesters.
In this guest blog, journalist Peter Salmon explores the background and root causes of the strikes and the repression that has rocked the Kazakhstan throughout 2011.
Repression intensifies against Kazakh oil workers’ uprising
by Peter Salmon
The Kazakh authorities have responded to the oil workers’ revolt with arrests, jailings and police attacks on demonstrations, while company managements have sacked hundreds for striking. Despite the repression, the unprecedented wave of protests, which erupted in the oil-producing province of Mangistau in mid-May, was continuing at the time of writing in late August. At the movement’s height in early June, labour movement sources reported that 12-18,000 workers were on strike, demanding pay rises and recognition of independent trade unions.
The protests started on 9 May at Karazhanbasmunai, a joint venture owned by Kazmunaigaz, the main state-controlled national oil company, and CITIC, a Chinese holding company. The immediate spark was Karazhanbasmunai’s refusal to recognise the results of a trade union election that had gone against a collaborationist official. On 9 May, 1400 workers refused to eat lunches and dinners, and on 17 May 4500 walked out. They demanded pay parity with workers at OzenMunaiGaz, KazMunaiGaz’s largest production subsidiary – who themselves had won a substantial increase in basic wages, and torpedoed company plans for a greater element of production-linked pay, with a 19-day wildcat stoppage in March 2010.[i]
On 11 May, activists called for a general strike across Mangistau region. Kazakh workers employed by Ersai Caspian Contractor, a joint venture owned by ENI, the Italian-based multinational oil company, and ERC Holdings of Kazakhstan, joined the protests. They demanded pay parity with foreign employees doing the same jobs, who they said were paid twice as much. Ersai refused to negotiate with the strikers, ten of whom went on hunger strike, and retaliated with sackings, according to a news agency.[ii]
In late May the action spread to the larger workforce at OzenMunaiGaz, where workers – including transport drivers and those conducting well servicing and well workover operations – demanded pay rises to make up for rapid inflation since their increase last year and the slashing of bonus payments. On 24 May a local court declared strike action at the company illegal, but on 26 May there was a mass walkout nonetheless.
The strikers in the three companies advanced various demands. The principle concern at Ozenmunaigaz was for a recalculation of the coefficients (i.e. regional weighting, industry premia, etc) on which pay depends, Kazakhstan’s main business newspaper reported. Other demands reported by the Association of Human Rights for Central Asia included: the right for independent trade unions (the Karakiyak union and others) to function; revision of collective agreements “on the principle of equality of parties”; a 100% wage increase to bring workers’ living standards up to minimum; and for wages and conditions to meet International Labour Organisation standards.[iii]
The strike now turned into a grand battle between the workforce on one side, and the companies and authorities on the other. KazMunaiGaz Exploration and Production (KMG EP), which owns all of OzenMunaiGaz and half of Karazhanbasmunai – and is itself state-controlled but with 39% owned by investors via a London stock exchange listing – announced that it now expected to lose 540,000 tonnes of oil production, 4% of its previously projected total of 13.5 million tonnes in 2011, due to the dispute. Ozenmunaigaz’s output had already fallen by 2% in 2010, mainly due to the strike in that year.[iv]
On 1 June, Natalia Sokolova, a lawyer who had advised the workers, was arrested and both OzenMunaiGaz and Karazhanbasmunai began sacking strikers. Tensions were heightened further when Sabit Kenzhebaev, a transport department manager at Karazhanbasmunai who had been instructed to sack strikers against his will, died of a heart attack. On 5 June, 500 Karazhanbasmunai workers gathered in Aktau, the capital of the Mangistau region, intending to march to the akimat (regional authority) building to protest – but were dispersed violently by police. Three strikers, including the prominent trade union activist Kuanysh Sisenbaev, were admitted to hospital with knife wounds after harming themselves as a protest. Local authority employees were instructed to go to work as strikebreakers, and threatened with sackings if they refused, according to labour movement information networks.[v]
During June, some strikers returned to work, but those who remained out grew more determined. Workers established a “tent city” in Zhanaozen, and on 8 July it was broken up by baton-wielding police – to which about 60 responded by pouring petrol on themselves and threatening to set themselves alight. Another thousand demonstrators were encircled by police outside the OzenMunaiGaz headquarters. There were repeated confrontations between police and a crowd of several thousand in the days that followed.[vi]
The movement has a political aspect. Not only was it first sparked by a row over union representation, and featured demands for the right to organise independent unions, but it has also led to mass resignations from Nur-Otan, Kazakhstan’s ruling political party. Workers at state-controlled enterprises are encouraged to join it, in a manner reminiscent of Communist Party recruitment in the Soviet period – and on 11 August a large group marched to the Nur-Otan regional headquarters in Zhanaozen to hand in their resignations. A spokesman told reporters that 3000 of them had quit, since they had been forced to join anyway, and their demands had not been met. The Nur-Otan regional leader, Koshbai Qyzanbaev, acknowledged only 1089 resignations.[vii]
As the summer wore on, the Kazakh courts and police stepped up repression against activists. Natalia Sokolova, the lawyer assisting the strikers, was on 8 August sentenced to six years in jail for “inciting social discord”; Akzhanat Aminov, a trade union leader at OzenMunaiGaz, and Natalia Azhigalieva, an activist, have been arrested and charged with the same crime, while Kuanysh Sisinbaev has been sentenced to 200 hours’ community service. On 16 August, Zhanbolat Mamay, a 23-year-old activist in an opposition political group, Rukh Pen Til, was arrested as he returned from Moscow – where he addressed a press conference and civil society meetings about the oil industry dispute – and sentenced to 10 days’ administrative detention. According to company statements, 373 OzenMunaizGaz employees and 160 from Karazhanbasmunai have been dismissed for “illegal” strike action. One activist, Zhaksylyk Turbaev, has been murdered by unidentified thugs.[viii]
The oilfield conflict makes a mockery of Kazakhstan’s long-standing efforts to present itself in the west as a democratic state, and human rights organisations in western Europe have not lost the opportunity to point this out. On 6 July, with encouragement from Amnesty International, the rock singer Sting cancelled a planned appearance in Astana at a $700-per-ticket concert, stating that he had “no intention” of crossing “a virtual picket line”. The legal persecution of labour movement activists has been denounced in the European parliament by Paul Murphy, a Socialist Party/United Left Alliance member of the parliament from Ireland visited Mangistau, and others.[ix]
The Kazakh oil workers’ struggle bears out the proposition of the labour historian Beverly Silver that “where capital goes, conflict goes”.[x] Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, western capital has made greater inroads into the oil sector in Kazakhstan than in Russia, where it has been somewhat constrained by statist and nationalist policies. In the last decade it has been joined by a gigantic inflow of Chinese capital. The Kazakh elite, who have been immensely enriched by the oil boom of the last decade, is the third part of the unholy trinity that workers face.
In Mangistau region, oil production has expanded at a healthy pace. But the riches have been divided unequally: while billionaires flourish, and living standards have risen in the new and old capitals, Astana and Almaty, Mangistau has in terms of the UN’s development indicators only been lifted to the national average, from below it. And, staggeringly, although Mangistau produces more oil than any other Kazakh region, in 2008 it had the highest proportion of people living below the poverty line (32.4%) and the worst poverty by the UN’s measures.[xi] The immediacy of this injustice, the stark chasm between rich and poor, and a tradition of worker activism that has resurged in recent years, is a potent mixture that has now exploded.
[ix] “Sting nakazal Kazakhstan”, Kommersant, 4 July 2011; the web sites of Sting Symphonicity and Paul Murphy MEP. Sting, who was touring the whole former Soviet Union and did not cancel dates in e.g. Belarus or Uzbekistan, was criticised for being selective in his protest.
[x] Beverley Silver, Forces of Labor: workers’ movements and globalization since 1870 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 41).
[xi] UNDP Kazakhstan, National Human Development Report 2009, pp. 103-109.
Since May 2011 two towns in Western Kazakhstan have been seeing protest actions in the oil sector that still involve thousands of workers. Massive lay-offs have hit over a thousand workers, affecting their families, their children. Some of the protest action participants suffered detention, disciplinary punishments, and criminal prosecution, including Natalya Sokolova, a union legal officer, who was sentenced to 6 years in prison for so-called “incitement to social animosity”. This sentence creates a dangerous precedent for the whole trade union movement in the country and has been widely denounced by trade union and human rights organisations from all over the world.
The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, supported by international trade union organisations, is campaigning for the resolution of the conflict.
You can help! Go here to send a message to Kazakh President Nazarbayev.
[Editor’s note: the following press release has been lightly edited to make it more readable.]
13 July 2011
Kazakhstan: authorities engage in violent reprisals against striking oil workers
In Kazakhstan’s Mangistau province, a real threat has emerged to the security and safety of thousands of oil workers participating in a collective action – a strike – which they started on 11 May 2011. Taking part in the strike are oil workers at OzenMunayGaz, Karazhanbasmunay, and Ersay Caspian Contractor (the latter is part of the Italian holding ENI). The workers are continuing a protest action of indefinite duration. The workers on strike are being joined by more and more employees of auxiliary production units and relatives. According to observers, over the past months, eight to fifteen people have taken part. During the strike, some 900 workers have been fired. We have already written about this in the press release “Kazakhstan: inactivity of the authorities pushes oil industry workers to suicide!” (14 June 2011).
This collective action was a response to the inaction of employers – the foreign owners of oil deposits and local authorities. None of these parties has reacted to workers’ demands.
The demands of the industrial action remain unchanged:
To allow the creation and functioning of independent trade unions and their structures including the Karakiyak trade union;
To revise the collective agreement so that is based on the principle of equality of parties and takes into consideration the interests and rights of the workers;
To raise the wages of the workers by 100%, as the current agreement does not provide for actual minimum living standards;
To bring wages and other working conditions in accordance with International Labour Standards.
In recent days, alarming events are unfolding in the cities where the enterprises are located and where employees have gone on strike.
At about 16:00 on 8 July 2011, a unit of fully armed special police landed and attacked peaceful citizens in the city of Zhanaozen unexpectedly and without explanation or warnings.
Without entering into negotiations or making demands, policemen started to disperse the gathered people, beating them with clubs. They overturned woks with food prepared by relatives and tore the roof off a makeshift tent where people were sitting. According to witnesses, the police officers’ behavior was aggressive: they were doing this on purpose in order to provoke confrontation. Men and women taking part in the strike tried to stop the police officers but were severely beaten up. About thirty people were forcibly taken to local hospitals. As of 12 July, a number of the arrested persons have managed to escape from the hospitals.
Realizing that they were outmatched, a group of sixty oil workers on hunger strike poured petrol over their bodies and announced that they were ready to burn themselves up as a sign of protest against the lawlessness and violence of the police.
Over a thousand protesting oil workers were rounded up by the police on the premises of OzenMunayGaz. A special police unit is hindering their communication with the outside world. More than 4,000 people gathered in the main square in Zhanaozen to express their solidarity with the protesting oil workers.
On 9-10 July 2011, after a violent action against the fired employees of OzenMunayGaz (now on hunger strike), a mass meeting followed in the city of Mangistau. Following the violent dispersal of hunger strike participants and sympathizing colleagues, who all this time had been gathering at OzenMunayGaz, city residents started spontaneously flowing into the square in front of the local akimat (city administration) including elderly people, women and children. A fully equipped special police unit brought there on several coaches observed the crowd from a short distance away.
According to striking workers, the reason for the mass discontent was the behavior of the special police unit, which tried to obstruct the traditional “sadaqa” ceremony at the No.5 Oil Wells Directorate No.5 (UOS-5). This was where policemen overturned woks with food and began dispersing people present at the ceremony with clubs.
On 11 July 2011, the crowds of people gathered in the square in front of the Zhanaozen administration building consisted of families including elderly people and children. At the same time, special police units with special equipment were stationed at nearby schools Nos. 9, 18, and 19. According to our information, a water cannon, eighteen firefighting trucks, three military KamAZ trucks, and four coaches with special policemen are hidden in the Kazakhstan gas processing plant (KazGPZ) and ready to start reprisals at any moment.
The unfolding situation poses a threat to the health and safety of active strike participants:
Since 25 May 2011, Natalya Sokolova, lawyer of the trade union at Karazhanbasmunay, has been detained under Article 164 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan for “inciting social discord.” There is no information about her condition: she is being denied access to lawyers, relatives and her husband.
Kuanysh Sisenbaev, leader of the trade unions of the workers at Karazhanbasmunay, has been subject to the pressure from authorities since 1 July 2011 in the city of Aktau. He is being blamed for organizing a protest march of oil workers that took place in Aktau on 5 June 2011. During the violent reprisals, several demonstrators were arrested by the police. Sisenbaev and two colleagues were driven to suicide, as a result of which they were taken to a hospital. Sisenbaev has been charged under Article 373 of the Administrative Delinquency Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan: “Violation of laws on organizing and conducting peaceful gatherings, meetings, marches, pickets and demonstrations.”
On 3 July, Akzhanat Aminov, a leader of the trade union at OzenMunayGaz, was arrested under Article 164 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan “for inciting social discord.” Aminov suffers from diabetes and is in constant need of medical care. Currently, he is being held in a pretrial detention facility. He is being denied medical care, meetings with relatives and a lawyer, which is a form of cruel treatment whose aim is to pressure striking workers.
Natalya Azhigalieva, activist of the striking OzenMunayGaz workers and a fifth-class operator at the oil-and-gas production directorate (NGDU) of OzenMunayGaz, has been fired. She was among the thirty detained oil workers who went on hunger strike and who were forcibly taken to a hospital on 8 July in Zhanaozen. On the morning of 11 July, she managed to escape from the hospital, which is under the surveillance of a special police unit. Criminal charges are being fabricated against her under Article 164 of the Kazakh Criminal Code “for inciting social discord.”
According to our observations, in breach of its international obligations, the Republic of Kazakhstan has taken the side of the employer in the industrial dispute and is using law enforcement bodies against trade union activists and striking workers, as well as engaging in violent reprisals against strikes and peaceful protests.
According to our information, during the strike the oil workers offered to start negotiations on peaceful settlement of the dispute. However, Kazakh authorities are ignoring the demands of the workers on strike despite the obligations assumed by the state.
The provisions of international agreements violated by Kazakhstan are as follows:
Article 19 (the right to express one’s opinion), Article 21 (freedom of peaceful assembly), Article 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
Nineteen conventions of the International Labor Organization including the fundamental ones:
– Convention 81 (Labor Inspection, 1947), pursuant to which the state in the person of the state labor inspectorate shall undertake relevant measures in case the human rights at work are violated;
– Convention 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948), pursuant to which the state shall allow the organization of trade unions of workers created for the protection of their lawful interests and shall recognize them;
– Convention 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949), pursuant to which employers shall conduct negotiations with workers’ representatives and the state shall be the guarantor of the consultative process;
– Convention 111 (Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958), pursuant to which it shall be prohibited to discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin, which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation.
There is well-founded concern that striking oil workers will be driven to despair and to extreme measures inflicting harm to their health, and the authorities will bring violent reprisals against them, thus ignoring their lawful and reasonable demands.
We earnestly ask for your help in urging national human rights protection bodies to respond to this situation to the full extent.
Lyudmila Kozlovska, Open Dialog Foundation
Nadejda Atayeva, Association for Human Rights in Central Asia