Zhanaozen – NHC concerned with crack-down on independent voices one year after | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Zhanaozen – NHC concerned with crack-down on independent voices one year after

Zhanaozen – NHC concerned with crack-down on independent voices one year after

One year after Kazakhstani security forces shot 16 people following a strike in the oil town Zhanaozen in Western Kazakhstan, the authorities are intensifying the pressure against alternative voices in the country. The scrutiny also extends to activity outside the country’s borders. A Kazakhstani independent trade union activist was attempted kidnapped in Moscow this weekend. -Since the Zhanaozen events, Kazakhstan has moved in the wrong direction regarding civil society, states Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Bjørn Engesland. -Whilst trying to keep up appearances abroad, for example by becoming a member of the UN Human Rights Council, activists and independent media working for the same rights at home are subject to an unacceptable crack-down.

Zhanaozen oil workers started a strike in May 2011 in order to protest the disfunctionality of their trade union and the lack of implementation of labour rights outlined in Kazakhstani legislation. For months, Kazakhstani authorities seemed not to care about the strikers, until security forces entered the square in the centre of the town on the National Day 16 December and during the commotion left more than 16 people in the region dead. Communication lines were cut, independent investigators were banned from the region for days, and there were reports of mass arrests, ill-treatment and obscured information.

Though the government eventually initiated some investigation and outlined some reforms, this seemed rather intended to determine culprits than to shed light on the incident and address the core issues in practice. Over the year that has passed, activists trying to address the issue and media workers trying to report on it have been subject to an increasing pressure from the authorities.

Trade union legal representative Natalia Sokolova was imprisoned already in the autumn of 2011. She has since then been released, although with strings attached, but many others from the local community have also been subject to the same treatment without much international attention, although the Civic Solidarity Platform where NHC is a member followed the court cases against several oil workers in Aktau.

The more profiled cases include Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the opposition party “Alga”, who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for his alleged involvement in the uprising in Zhanaozen. Part of the evidence against him was his participation at the OSCE human dimension implementation meeting in Warsaw in October 2011, where he was one of many who drew the attention of the diplomats present to the strike amongst oil workers in the western part of Kazakhstan. Fellow activist Vadim Kuramshin has also been imprisoned after flawed court proceedings.

Independent media has been subject to searches, provocations and large fines following attempts to report on Zhanaozen and the later developments, including monitoring of court hearings. During the case against Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the Alga opposition party, the Kazakhstani Prosecutor General went on to accuse a number of newspapers, websites and TV-channels in the country as intent on “inciting social unrest” and “overthrowing the government and undermining state security”, and to ask for a ban on the publishing of 8 newspapers and 23 web-based news outlets, a ban including the spread of materials from these newspapers through the internet.

Today, 19 December, in Almaty, the independent newspaper “Golos Respubliki” and Internet TV-channel “Stan TV” were subject to searches. They now fear for the safety of their co-workers as the brother of the publisher of the newspaper already has been framed, and they feel an intensified pressure towards staff. Last week, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper was handed down a significant fine for publishing the newspaper material on an alternative platform.

In connection with the anniversary for the Zhanaozen events, which also coincides with a 1986 uprising in Almaty, civil society activists organized various events in Almaty on 16 December. Two central activists from the Socialist movement were apprehended by the police in advance of the scheduled events, but were released shortly after. Others were sentenced to 15 days administrative imprisonment. The police attendance was approximately equal to that of participants on the activities that did take place. 

On 15 December, during a large demonstration in the centre of Moscow, four men dressed in civilian clothes approached Ainur Kurmanov, one of the most prominent activists for independent trade unions. They did not introduce themselves, but made it clear that they wanted to take Mr Kurmanov away for an “identity check”. Activists who happened to be at the site assisted Mr Kurmanov in the situation, and also allegedly recognised one of the men as an employee of the Kazakhstani Embassy in Moscow and another as an officer of the Kazakhstani KNB. On 18 December, the Zhanartu trade union and the Socialist Movement published a statement on the event and their concerns.

-The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is concerned with the pressure on independent voices in Kazakhstan, in particular the development indicating that the activities of Kazakhstani civil society activists abroad are subject to repercussions from the authorities. That this approach also includes events under the auspices of large international organisations like the OSCE is clearly not in line with the image the Kazakhstani government is seeking to promote internationally and should be halted immediately, says Engesland.


The Norwegian Helsinki Committee invited Mr Kurmanov and Ukteshbaev to a seminar on oil workers’ trade unions in Oslo in February, when they were already in exile due to fears for repercussions for their year-long attempts to register an independent nation-wide trade union in Kazakhstan and support to the striking oil workers in Zhanaozen. For more information click here.

During the seven-month long strike in Zhanaozen in Western Kazakhstan, oil workers demanded an independent trade union that would advocate their labour rights. The strike ended with government forces shooting at the strikers and other civilians, leaving 16 people dead in Zhanaozen and neighbouring Shetpe. Investigations following the incident bear signs of determining scape goats rather than addressing the core issues of the conflict. For more information click here.

Since the Zhanaozen events the pressure on independent voices in Kazakhstan has intensified; activists are imprisoned, demonstrations hindered, and independent media outlets closed or involved in court cases. For more information click here.