Kazakhstan: Natalia Sokolova, striking oil-workers’ lawyer, released from jail

Regime under pressure from international campaign

On the 8 March, the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan took the decision to ‘requalify’ criminal charges against Natalia Sokolova, the lawyer for the striking oil-workers at “KarazhanbasMunai”. As a result, the 6 year prison sentence she received in August 2011, has been annulled. Instead, Natalia Sokolova is to serve a 3 year conditional sentence, she will be under police surveillance for a further 2 years and she will be banned from taking part in “social activities” (that is politics or assisting trade unions and other groups). She has now been released and is back at home with her husband.

The Socialist Movement Kazakhstan congratulates Natalia Sokolova, the workers of Kazakhstan and, in particular, the oil workers at Mangystau for the release of Natalia Sokolova. This is a victory for the whole working class of Kazakhstan. The authorities wanted to use the sentencing of Natalia Sokolova as a warning to others in Kazakhstan not to struggle. Instead they have faced a growing campaign of international solidarity, forcing them to back down.

The international campaign of solidarity saw the participation of many trade unions and trade unionists, human rights bodies, left parties, organisations and individuals. An especially important role has been played by the Committee for a Workers’ International and its sections in different countries, which have organized a whole series of pickets, protests and press conferences with the demand to release Natalia Sokolova. Since the New Year, this work has been supplemented by Campaign Kazakhstan.

It is no coincidence that next week the European parliament is to discuss Kazakhstan. Due to the untiring work of the United Left Group and, in particular, Paul Murphy (MEP for the Socialist Party in Ireland (CWI)) and his team, even the right wing factions in the Parliament had to support the demand to release Natalia Sokolova in their resolution. They usually ignore the fate of workers and trade unionists who suffer at the hands of authoritarian regimes, preferring to centre attention on pro-capitalist politicians and human rights activists. But continuous pressure from Paul Murphy’s office ensured that this could not happen. It was almost certain that the call to release Natalia Sokolova would have been made by the Parliament, next week.

Another important event was the visit to Kazakhstan by Andrej Hunko, a member of the German Bundestag from Die Linke. He is also a sponsor of Campaign Kazakhstan. Andrej Hunko visited Kazakhstan, as an observer, during the country’s fraudulent parliamentary election, held in January. He used the opportunity to visit Natalia Sokolova in prison, expressing solidarity and assuring her that we would keep up as much pressure as possible on the regime.

Solidarity pickets

In the Russian-speaking world, the Russia section of the CWI has been involved in organizing solidarity pickets since the start of the oil dispute. Several successful press conferences have been held to help to break the press blockade about the strike and to make sure that Natalia Sokolova’s release is demanded at every opportunity. At a later stage, this work was supplemented by pickets held by a number of other left and trade union organisations in Moscow, St Peterburg and Kiev.

In January, Natalia was nominated by the Zhanartu trade union federation (affiliated to the Socialist Movement Kazakhstan) to receive the International Trade Union Congress prize as “Trade unionist of the year”. This nomination was supported by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights. Even this nomination caused the Kazakhstan regime huge embarrassment. Pressure from the Committee for National Security (KNB) was reportedly put on Natalia while she was in prison to withdraw her nomination.

Not a small role has been played by the Socialist Movement Kazakhstan within the country. A number of pickets and actions have been held, often leading to the arrest of our supporters. SDK members, Zhanna Baitelova, Dmitry Tikhonov and Arman Ozheubaev, have all served two prison sentences of 15 days. Tens of other activists have been fined for participating in protests. Our comrades from the Odak trade union have made sure that information about the issue has been distributed throughout Kazakhstan.

Keep up pressure on the regime!

It is impossible to list the other countries in which actions and pickets have been organized. Austria, Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Germany, Britain, Ireland, USA, Sweden, France, Venezuala, Pakistan and Poland have all seen pickets. Sports fans in Ireland and Belgium have held up banners at games in which Kazakhstan teams have been playing. Big business lobbies have been picketed in London and Berlin. The issue has been taken up by dozens of trade unions throughout the world.

Even though Natalia has still been found guilty, her release is a huge victory for the workers’ movement and the campaign of solidarity. It demonstrates that even in the face of opposition by the regime and employers and their international supporters, the silence of the official mass media and the resistance of trade union bureaucrats, we can win. Pressure on Ak-ordy (the President’s residence) has worked. Now we have to continue the campaign, keeping the pressure up to ensure the release of the 43 oil-workers currently charged with “inciting social discord” and participating in “illegal trade union meetings”, to release Vadim Karamshin, for charges to be dropped against the leader of the SDK Ainur Kurmanov and Esenbek Ukteshbayev and for the release of all other political prisoners in Kazakhstan.

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March 2012