A court in Kazakhstan has entered a second week of hearings in the trial of a trade union activist accused of whipping up unrest among industrial workers in the west.
Nurbek Kushakbayev stands accused of inciting a strike in December by several dozen employees of Techno Trading Ltd, a company based in western Kazakhstan. The workers declared they were going on a partial hunger strike in a demand for improved working conditions and an increase in their wages. Kushakbayev is accused of giving strikers advice on how to formulate their demands.
His trial is taking place in the capital city, Astana, 1,700 kilometers away from where the company is based, for reasons that have not been clarified by prosecutors.
On March 28, Kushakbayev’s lawyer, Tulegen Shaikov, appealed for the judge, Aizhan Kulbayeva, to recuse herself, arguing that she was unfairly favoring the prosecution, but the motion was denied.
Kushakbayev’s trial is widely seen as linked to his union consultancy activities at Oil Construction Company (OCC), which is also based in the west, in the city of Aktau. Hundreds of workers there also went on hunger strike earlier this year.
A separate trial for Amin Yeleusinov, the main union leader at OCC, is expected soon, although no date has been set.
Kushakbayev and Yeleusinov were both arrested in the days after the OOC strike was forcibly brought to a close amid a welter of fines and further threats of prosecution against workers.
The trial against Kushakbayev opened on March 17.
Prosecutors accuse Kushakbayev of willfully causing mischief by giving legal advice to the Techno Trading Ltd strikers.
“Kushakbayev offered them his consultation, gave them more effective tips on how to mount a strike, and specifically suggested that they declare a hunger strike, gather as many people as possible and not be afraid of the police,” prosecutor Kanat Daribay said.
Daribay said that the protest set Techno Trading Ltd back by around 25 million tenge ($79,000). It is not clear how this amount was calculated.
Another lawyer for Kushakbayev, Gulnar Zhuaspayeva, has said the company initially sought even stiffer compensation — around 94 million tenge ($300, 000).
“Where they came up with this 25 million tenge number is not clear,” Zhuaspayeva said. “We will raise all these issues during the court proceedings.”
It has also emerged that the security services have been actively monitoring Kushakbayev’s telephone conversations since 2015. They say the wiretaps were authorized by a prosecutor and based on suspicions the activist was plotting to “incite social unrest.”
A witness questioned in court, Maria Zharkova, a former employee at Techno Trading Ltd, confirmed that she and her colleagues had spoken to Kushakbayev in acknowledgement of his extensive experience in labor disputes. She recalled an exchange that took place on January 4.
“Kushakbayev said that we should stand up for our rights. That we should not be afraid of anything. He said that we are doing nothing against the government, and that this is a protest against the behavior of the company’s management. The main thing is not to fight with or get angry at anybody,” she said.
Zharkova earlier this year to told RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, that she was fired from Techno Trading Ltd following the strikes.
Objections to the apparently unimpeachable advice offered by Kushakbayev serves a lucid example of what international laborer rights activists argue is part of Kazakhstan’s refusal to tolerate dissent among workers unhappy with the conditions of their employment.
The recent crackdown of labor rights groups is part of a broader, long-standing campaign of state-led intimidation of government critics, nongovernmental civil society groups and independent media.
Correction: In the original version of this article, it was incorrectly stated that Kushakbayev was on trial for his union activities at OCC.