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Hunger Strike Protests By Oil Workers Growing In Western Kazakhstan

Hundreds On Hunger Strike In Kazakhstan Over Closure Of Labor Union
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WATCH: Hundreds On Hunger Strike In Kazakhstan Over Closure Of Labor Union

A protest by oil workers in western Kazakhstan against the closure of a confederation of independent trade unions is growing in magnitude as it approaches the end of its second week.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondent in the oil-producing region of Manghystau Province reports that about 400 oil-sector workers were taking part in the hunger strike protest on January 18.

The protest initially involved about 90 people, but expanded considerably on January 17 when hundreds more joined the hunger strike.

Most of the hunger strikers work within Manghystau’s Qalamqas and Zhetybai oil fields.

They are demanding that Kazakhstan's ruling Nur Otan party reinstate the independent trade union body -- the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan.

The confederation was closed down as a result of an economic court ruling on January 4.

The case was brought against the confederation by Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry, which accused the organization of failing to comply with a 2015 law that required it to confirm its status as "national union" within six months of officially registering.

The confederation, which formed after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, began its activities at different dates and in various forms across the country.

Confederation representatives say some of their attempts to register those activities were rejected by local officials, complicating the process of confirming the organization's "national" status.

Kazakhstan’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, has ruled the country since 1989 when it was still a Soviet republic.

Nazarbaev has suppressed dissent and been accused of human rights abuses by human rights organizations.

Human Rights Watch has said that Kazakhstan's 2014 law on trade unions contains articles that restrict fundamental freedoms and are incompatible with international standards.

'Illegal Hunger Strike'

In Manghystau Province on January 18, protesters who gathered at sites within the Qalamqas and Zhetybai oil fields could be heard chanting slogans like "Independent Trade Union for an Independent State."

One female protester, Akzer Nurzhanova, told RFE/RL that she joined the hunger strike on January 18 and that more people are expected to do so if the confederation is not reinstated.

Nurzhanova, a mother of three children who works for the Oil Construction Company (OCC), said: "We all are ready to go on hunger strike if the [Nur Otan party] doesn't listen to us and doesn't resolve our problem."

Nurzhanov also said she was joining public protest rallies "to support the hunger strikers as a mother, a worker, and a resident of the Manghystau Province."

Protesting oil worker Maksat Topeev said on January 18 that he had met with a regional representative of the Nur Otan party who had promised to meet with the demonstrators.

But another hunger striker, Imanghali Moldaghaliev, complained that Nur Otan representatives had made that promise in the past and have failed to meet with the protesters.

"All the people here are workers who pay party membership fees to Nur Otan," Moldaghaliev said. "Why do we pay if the party doesn't defend us?"

Khalila Nurghalieva, the deputy head of the Nur Otan's Manghystau Province branch, told RFE/RL at the party's regional headquarters that she is "aware of the oil workers' protest."

But Nurghalieva called their demonstration an "illegal hunger strike."

Nurghalieva also said protesters had not yet approached party officials to ask for a meeting.

"If the protesters write to us, we'll go there to meet them," Nurghalieva said.

Similar protests took place in Manghystau Province in December 2016.

Kazakh authorities' pressure on independent trade unions began after protests in 2011 by oil workers in western Kazakhstan.

Trade unions sided with the workers during those demonstrations, which lasted several months and ultimately led to the deaths of at least 14 protesters who were killed by police in the oil town of Zhanaozen on December 16 and 17, 2011.

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