International labor organizations have raised an outcry at the prosecution of prominent Kazhakh trade union leader, Erlan Baltabay, who faces an eight-year jail term, along with a lifetime ban on holding positions in a union. Though the verdict is still pending an appeal, activist groups, including IndustriALL Global Union, have called upon the authorities to intervene in the process.
An outspoken leader of local trade union in southern Kazakhstan’s Shymkent, Baltabay is on trial for the misappropriation of about $28,000 of union dues. He has time and again pointed out that he was in possession of the money following the dissolution of his petrochemical workers’ union, Decent Work, in 2015, and that his mission was to preserve the funds. However, the authorities have cited the possession of funds itself as proof of crime.
In June, several activists in Kazakhstan had asked the International Labor Organization to review the ongoing repression of workers in the country. The Kazakh authorities have mercilessly suppressed dissent, carrying out crackdowns on independent trade unions and the labor sector. The mass protests against the presidential elections in June were suppressed by government forces.
Legislative changes have been made to prevent workers from forming unions and bargaining collectively. Criminal sanctions have been introduced for leading or participating in ‘illegal’ strikes. The authorities have repeatedly invoked the Trade Union Law and Labor Code to counter independent trade unionists, who are faced with harassment, surveillance and, in some cases, dismissal from work.
The authorities, headed by president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, also continue to deny registration to independent unions, as well as adopt authoritarian policies, which have been used to arrest several union leaders in recent years. Independent union leaders like Larisa Kharkova, Amin Eleusinov and Nurbek Kushakbaev have been persecuted through the courts. The trio received the Arthur Svensson prize for trade union rights in 2018.
On July 1, IndustriALL’s general secretary, Valter Sanches also wrote a letter to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, condemning the ongoing trial of Baltabay and criminal procedures against other union leaders. Valter Sanches made it clear that the main intention of such repression against activists was “to foster an atmosphere of fear and prevent other activists and workers from exercising their universally recognized fundamental rights and freedoms.”