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Striking Kazakh Oil Workers' Lawyer Gets Six-Year Jail Term

Kazakh lawyer Natalia Sokolova
AQTAU, Kazakhstan -- A lawyer for striking oil workers in western Kazakhstan has been sentenced to six years in jail for "igniting social unrest," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

In her judgment on August 8, Judge Gulmarzhan Adil-Sultani also ruled that Natalya Sokolova will be barred from performing legal or social activities in Kazakhstan for three years after her release from jail.

Sokolova, who provided legal support to employees at the Qarazhanbas oil and gas fields in the Manghystau region, was arrested in May after the strike began.

She was found guilty on May 24 of "organizing an unsanctioned mass gathering" in front of police headquarters in Aqtau three days earlier and sentenced to eight days in jail.

Her sentence was to have ended on June 1. But instead of releasing her, the authorities in the Manghystau region brought a new criminal case against her for "igniting social hatred." She has been held in custody since then.

Sokolova's trial started on July 28. Only her lawyers were allowed to be present at the hearings.

Trade union activists said she pleaded not guilty, saying she was just assisting local oil workers to defend their rights, which is legal.

The hundreds of strikers have been demanding Sokolova's release, a wage increase, and the lifting of restrictions on the activities of independent trade unions in the region. Some 416 striking workers have been fired since May.

Some 200 of the striking oil workers in Aqtau announced today that they have quit the ruling Nur-Otan party of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, saying they had been pushed into joining it anyway and that the party has ignored their demands for three months.

English singer/songwriter Sting threw his support behind the striking oil workers and canceled a July 4 concert in Astana.

Read more in Kazakh here