Support Pussy Riot by all means. But support the Kazakh oil workers too

Kazakh oil workers on strike, July 2011

A campaign is building to free oil worker activists jailed in Kazakhstan, where last year's strike culminated in a massacre that left at least 16 dead and 64 wounded

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 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 – and just a few days after the Zhanaozen appeals were dismissed – three members of the Pussy Riot feminist punk band, who allegedly sang songs against Russian president Vladimir Putin in a cathedral, were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. They were handed two-year sentences.

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:

• Support the on-line protest, demanding a review of unjust sentences, launched by the Confederation of Labour of Russia, the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan and the LabourStart web site.

• Write to the Kazakh government, demanding the release of the jailed oil workers and investigation of the allegations of torture, and send copies to the Open Dialog Foundation which is monitoring events in Zhanaozen and urging international support (you may think as I do that the Kazakh government won’t listen, but doing this signals to our friends in Kazakhstan that there is international solidarity);

• Especially if you are in the UK, demand that the British government takes action too, as it has close links with Kazakhstan and supports the activity of British oil companies there.

For more information, visit the “Zhanaozen oil workers” site (Russian and some English)

There's a comment on the Zhanaozen massacre by People & Nature here.

From the People & Nature site

Comments

akai
Sep 2 2012 16:39

We had a picket at the Embassy of Kazakhstan here after this happened. It's sort of in the middle of nowhere, but it's the thought that counts. We haven't forgotten about it and will continue to inform people and perhaps think of more action.