The prosecution of a labor union lawyer in western Kazakhstan on criminal charges of “inciting social discord” is incompatible with international human rights law, said Human Rights Watch today. Closing statements in the trial against the lawyer, Natalia Sokolova, were made on August 4, 2011, and a verdict is expected in the coming days, although the court has not indicated the date.
The indictment accuses Sokolova of aiming to “incite social discord” by “speaking before the collective [of workers] about the disproportionality in wages… [and by]calling on workers to stage unsanctioned protests, carrying out these activities publicly and using the media.” She was also charged with organizing illegal gatherings under article 334-2 of Kazakhstan’s criminal code.
“Kazakh authorities shouldn’t misuse the criminal law to quash labor union activity,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These kinds of tactics have no place in a society based on democracy and the rule of law.”
Prosecuting Sokolova for addressing trade union members on relevant issues is incompatible with Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said. Making such actions as addressing workers on issues of wage disparity subject to such heavy criminal penalties is arbitrary and illegitimate interference with the right to freedom of expression.
The prosecutor asked the court to sentence Sokolova to seven years in prison and to forbid her from practicing law for three years. Sokolova has denied all criminal charges.
Kazakhstan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, including trade union membership and activities. It is also a member of the International Labor Organization, whose fundamental principles, including the right to organize, are binding on all members.
Under the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, the Kazakh government has a duty to ensure that lawyers can carry out their work without intimidation, hindrance, or harassment and is required to ensure that they are not subject to prosecution or administrative, economic, or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards, and ethics.
Under Kazakhstan’s criminal code, “inciting social discord” refers to “deliberate actions aimed at the incitement of…enmity or antagonism” and carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Human Rights Watch said the vaguely defined offense constitutes interference with basic rights protected by international law.
Sokolova was first detained on May 24, after authorities accused her of organizing an unsanctioned meeting of oil workers outside the Mangistau district police station in Aktau. She was sentenced to eight days of administrative detention.
On June 1, instead of releasing Sokolova, authorities remanded her to custody. On June 10, the Aktau City Court approved Sokolova’s arrest on charges of “inciting social discord.” According to Sokolova’s husband, Vassiliy Chepurnoi, who is also representing her in court, the criminal investigation was initiated on the basis of a complaint issued by management at KarazhanbasMunai, an oil company in Western Kazakhstan. Workers at KarazhanbasMunai had gone on strike on May 17, following what they said was interference in the activities of their union.
Chepurnoi told Human Rights Watch that the authorities would not give him permission to visit his wife in detention, despite his repeated requests.
Sokolova’s hearing began on July 28. Chepurnoi told Human Rights Watch that the presiding judge refused to admit into evidence video recordings that would have bolstered Sokolova’s defense and denied her motions to summon witnesses.
Chepurnoi also told Human Rights Watch that Sokolova argued during the trial that she did not organize the KarazhanbasMunai strike or any illegal meetings, but acted in her official capacity as legal adviser to the union, appearing at the invitation of workers who wished to consult with her about wages and coefficient payments.
KarazhanbasMunai is a Kazakh-Chinese joint venture and subsidiary of KazMunaiGas, Kazakhstan’s national oil and gas company. The striking workers are demanding that the company stop interfering in the work of their labor union and increase their wages. Workers at other companies in western Kazakhstan have also staged strikes in support of the KarazhanbasMunai workers.
Striking workers have called for the release of both Sokolova and Akzhanat Aminov, an employee of OzenMunaiGas who was arrested on the night of June 30, and is being held on criminal charges of organizing an illegal meeting. Other workers have been fined or sentenced on administrative charges for participating in strikes in the region.
“Prosecuting a labor lawyer for talking to workers about their rights violates Kazakhstan’s obligations to respect freedom of association and is inconsistent with Kazakhstan’s treaty obligations,” Williamson said. “The court should take this into consideration when ruling on Sokolova’s case.”