Kazakhstan: Trade Union Leader Punished With 4 Years of "Limited Freedom"

A court in Kazakhstan has once more signaled the government’s disregard for worker rights by sentencing the former head of an independent trade union to four years of "limited freedom" for purportedly abusing her status.

The sentence means Larisa Kharkova will have her movements strictly restricted for the period in question and will be required to apply to the authorities for permission if she intends to leave her home city.

Judge Svetlana Shinaliyeva, who presided over the trial in Shymkent, ruled on July 25 that Kharkova will have property confiscated and be denied the right to head any public organizations for a five-year period. Kharkova, who until recently led the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, known by its Russian acronym as KNPRK, will also serve 100 hours of community service.

The charges against Kharkova went through a convoluted iteration, beginning with accusations that she had embezzled $45,000 from her union and ending with suggestions the union leader refused to return furniture claimed by the leader of a teacher’s union in south Kazakhstan.

Kharkova’s lawyer, Dana Volkova, said on July 17 that there was no clear documentary indication of how much her client was accused of having embezzled.

The charges against Kharkova was eventually downgraded to “abuse of office in contravention of an organization’s interests.”

The tortuous set of accusations wittingly or otherwise masks the real story, which has to do with the government’s systematic dismantling of all worker representative groups not controlled by the state.

In 2014, Kazakhstan adopted a law that required trade unions to reregister — a move that in effect rendered it impossible for KNPRK to continue operating legally. In January, a economic affairs in Shymkent, where Kharkova and her national umbrella group is based, ruled that the union should be dissolved. 

Shortly thereafter, members of a daughter union group in the western city of Aktau went on a weeks-long hunger strike in protest at the decision. The ringleaders of that protest were duly arrested and have since also been sentenced to time in prison.

The message was clear: anybody trying to represent workers outside the confines of government-sanctioned groups will go to jail.

Kharkova neatly encapsulated the dread provoked by the campaign against independent labor groups in a video appeal uploaded to Facebook on the eve of her sentencing.

“Never in Kazakhstan… I have been working in independent labor union for 20 years, and I have never endured such a nightmare, such horrendous action toward trade unions as we have seen in the end of 2016 and the start of 2017. These are savage repressions,” she said.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kharkova was given a custodial sentence.

Kazakhstan: Trade Union Leader Punished With 4 Years of "Limited Freedom"

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