Authorities in Kazakhstan have abruptly released trade union lawyer Natalya Sokolova, who had been sentenced to six years in prison for advising strikers in the troubled oil town of Zhanaozen, the Aktau-based newspaper Lada reports.
The unexpected release of a union activist whose jailing sparked an international outcry has raised tentative hopes that those suspected of involvement in December’s violence may be treated with leniency.
Sokolova was released on March 7, it has emerged several days later, her six-year sentence commuted to three years’ probation. She is also forbidden from engaging in social work for three years.
She was found guilty of “inciting social discord” among the Zhanaozen strikers last September, months before the industrial dispute there turned violent. She called the charges politically motivated. At least 17 were killed in and around Zhanaozen in December after security forces opened fire on protestors.
The court freed Sokolova “taking into account extenuating circumstances, and also governed by the fact that the designated punishment should be just,” Lada quoted the ruling as saying – though the judge added that she “fully admits guilt” and had repented.
“Converting union lawyer Natalia Sokolova’s 6-year prison sentence to a 3-year suspended sentence is a positive step by the authorities and wonderful news for Sokolova and her family, but she should never have been imprisoned for speaking out on workers’ rights in the first place,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement after her release.
HRW pointed out that nine opposition activists and oil workers arrested following the Zhanaozen violence are currently awaiting trial on the same charges of inciting social discord, which the watchdog describes as “a vague law in Kazakh legislation which undermines basic rights to freedom of expression.”
Those facing charges include Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party; activists Serik Sapargali, Ayzhangul Amirova, and Zhanbolat Mamay; and theater director Bolat Atambayev.
A total of 43 protestors from Zhanaozen also face charges of involvement in the violence, against just five police officers.
After a sweeping government crackdown on dissenters in recent months, trials for the Zhanaozen violence are set to start soon.
In a separate case, opposition leaders Bolat Abilov and Amirzhan Kosanov of the OSDP Azat party were freed on March 11 after spending 15 days in jail on charges of organizing a rally in Almaty on February 25 without official permission.
Even as it welcomed Sokolova’s release, HRW urged the authorities to “immediately stop misusing criminal law to crack down on outspoken critics."