Two Kazak union leaders who were arrested and imprisoned in January after leading a hunger strike, have been convicted and fined exorbitant amounts for their protest against the government’s liquidation of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) in favor of a government-aligned federation.

Amin Yeleusinov, chairman of the Oil Construction Company union, was sentenced to two years in prison on politically motivated embezzlement charges and fined $26,300, according to Human Rights Watch. Yeleusinov, 55, is banned from engaging in any trade union activities for five years.

Authorities attempted to make Yeleusinov sign a false confession, and he has fallen ill due to the conditions in his prison cell and the harsh detention regime, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Nurbek Kushakbayev, KNPRK deputy president, was sentenced to two years prison in a corrective labor colony and fined $80,000. The OCC demanded the fines to pay for “harm” caused to the company. Human rights organizations say the trials were not conducted with due process and evidence acquitting the men was repressed.

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Kazakhstan’s Attacks on Unions Gains Momentum

Yeleusinov’s conviction is the latest development in an ongoing crackdown on independent labor movement in Kazakhstan, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), and part of an overall spate of “attacks, harassment and prosecutions as Kazakhstan’s embattled civil society continues to be targeted for exercising fundamental rights.”

The country adopted an onerous trade union law in 2014 that marginalized independent unions in favor of a government-controlled federation. Beginning in 2015, the Kazak government began denying registration of unions in the oil, health, construction, media and education sectors along with regional union bodies, as well as the national independent trade confederation. (See the HRW report on violations of workers’ rights in Kazakhstan.)

Larisa Kharkova, KNPRK chairperson, has been subjected to administrative and judicial harassment since the beginning of this year, and she is now facing what human rights organizations say is a series of trumped-up criminal charges.

‘Foreign Investors Should Recognize Kazakhstan’s Attacks on Workers’

The ITUC has lodged a formal complaint with the International Labor Organization over the union leaders’ imprisonment and over the government’s refusal to recognize the rights of workers to form independent trade unions.

Last month, Kazakhstan hosted an international exposition featuring the theme, “future energy,” a high-profile event expected to draw 3 million visitors, including global wealth leaders. Events like EXPO 2017 “should not distract from the serious human rights problems in Kazakhstan, or from the human costs of the government’s repressive policies,” according to Mihra Rittmann, an HRW researcher in Central Asia.

“Foreign investors–many of whom recognize the importance of upholding international labor standards–should take note that while the government claimed it was creating a better system of social partnerships and modernizing trade unions, the reality is that they decimated Kazakhstan’s independent trade union movement,” says Rittmann.

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