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Natalya Sokolova
ASTANA -- The jailed lawyer of striking oil workers in western Kazakhstan has been unexpectedly released on probation.

Natalya Sokolova, a lawyer for the Qarazhanbasmunai oil company's labor unions, has been freed on probation and is at home, her husband, Vasily Chepurnoy, confirmed to RFE/RL.

Sokolova was sentenced to six years in prison in August 2011 on charges of "inciting social hatred" in connection with an oil-workers' strike in Kazakhstan's Manghystau region. She said the case against her was politically motivated.

Though declining to be interviewed, Sokolova said that the Kazakh Supreme Court had reduced her sentence from six years in prison to three years' probation, with a ban on social work during that period.

Sokolova was arrested in May 2011.

In December 2011, at least 16 people were killed during clashes between police and striking workers who were, among other things, demanding Sokolova's release.

Last month, the Kazakh authorities released jailed rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis on amnesty after 2 1/2 years in prison. Jailed journalist Tokhniyaz Kuchukov was freed the same day.

U.S. Honors 'International Women Of Courage'

U.S. State Dept. Honors Afghan Lawmaker Maryam Durani
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WASHINGTON -- A Pakistani political rights activist and an Afghan women's radio station owner are among 10 honorees chosen by the U.S. State Department as 2012 International Women of Courage.

The recipients were honored at a ceremony in Washington led by first lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Clinton said each of the honored women had persisted in their work "in the face of adversity, often under the threat of violence."

"They come from diverse and distant places, but in one important way, they all walk the same path," Clinton said. "They, too, are working tirelessly for justice. They are working for accountability. They are working for freedom and they are working tirelessly to improve the lives of women and girls."

This year's honorees include five Muslim women, from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Libya, and women from Turkey, Brazil, Colombia, the Maldives, and Burma.

Maryam Durani of Afghanistan is a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council and the owner of a radio station that broadcasts information about women's rights. Clinton said Durani, who has survived attempts on her life for speaking out, ensures that "the message of equality and inclusion is heard loudly and clearly" in her community.
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (left) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (right) pose with Shad Begum of Pakistan as she receives the 2012 International Women of Courage award in Washington.
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (left) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (right) pose with Shad Begum of Pakistan as she receives the 2012 International Women of Courage award in Washington.
Shad Begum from Pakistan is regularly threatened for her work, which tries to engage women in political participation. Clinton praised Begum for "fearlessly championing Pakistani women's political and economic rights, and working to empower the disadvantaged and oppressed."

Other honorees include Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia, the first woman to sue her father for abusing the guardian system and preventing her from marrying the suitor of her choice. She is also the first woman to file a lawsuit against the government demanding the right for women to vote.

Zin Mar Aung of Burma was imprisoned for 11 years for her political activism and has dedicated her life to promoting democracy, women's empowerment, and conflict resolution.

First lady Michelle Obama praised the women for standing up and saying "the things that no one else could say, or would say. Year after year, they endured hardships that few of us could bear."

"These women come from all different corners of the globe; they have taken very different journeys to this moment," she said. "But they are all here today because somewhere along the line they decided they could no longer accept the world as it is. And they committed themselves to fighting for the world as they know it should be.

"They saw corruption and they worked to expose it. They saw oppression and they worked to end it. They saw violence, poverty, discrimination, and inequality, and they decided to use their voices and risk their lives to do something about it."

The State Department gives out the awards every year on International Women's Day on March 8.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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