by Ben Robinson, Campaign Kazakhstan England
Campaign Kazakhstan protested outside the London Kazakhstan embassy yesterday (21 June) to demand the immediate freeing of the latest high profile political prisoner – Bolat Atabayev. The protest was joined by Esenbek Ukteshbaev, leader of the independent Kazakhstan trade union, Zhanartu, visiting London to raise awareness of the situation facing workers in Kazakhstan. Alfia Nakipbekova, the celebrated Kazakh cellist, joined the protesters. Her musician and playwright husband, James Hesford, came with her and a friend of his, who makes documentary films, talked to us about what ways he might be able to publicise the atrocious repression of human rights in Kazakhstan.
Sitting on a chair outside the embassy and sheltered from the rain by an umbrella, Alfia played a favourite piece of Bach on her cello. “I am a musician and I will protest in the only way I know how – by playing my music,” she told those around her who applauded with enthusiasm. Her hand-painted placard said: ‘British Artists say Free Bolat Atabayev!’. It drew the attention of many passers-by, including Tobias Menzies, actor in the films Atonement and Casino Royale, who signed the petition.
See a video of the protest here: Protest kazakh embassy London June 2012
Bolat Atabayev is a famous and popular independent theatre director and performer, who has openly spoken out against the dictatorship in Kazakhstan. He was arrested on 15 June on charges of ‘inciting social discord’ in Zhanaozen, where the massacre of striking oil-workers and their supporters took place in December (See www.campaignkazakhstan.org for more info). With him was a young journalist, Zhanbolat Mamaia. Both of them are being sent by road from Almaty to Aktau to stand trial, a journey of over 3,000km. The conditions of the journey, the heat and the discomfort – could kill Bolat. His relatives fear for his health because he suffers from insulin-dependent diabetes, needing medicine every day. His brother was stopped from giving him the medicine needed for the journey by the police (officials at the embassy told Alfia yesterday, “It is not in our interests to let Bolat die!”).
Despite several previous peaceful protests, the Kazakhstan embassy authorities hit their diplomatic emergency button, summoning three police cars with screaming sirens. Protestors explained to the police that Kazakhstan is a dictatorship and that clearly they were hoping the police in London would act in an equally heavy-handed manner. In fact they were friendly and took the campaign leaflet.
Alfia Nakipbekovay and Campaign Kazakhstan supporters went into the embassy building to talk to staff and to hand in a protest letter. The letter demanded the immediate release of Bolat and Zhanbolat, but also of all political prisoners, including the oil workers who have recently been sentenced to years in prison and Vadim Kuramshin.
We were told by the officials that events in Kazakhstan were the business of those who live there. “What would you think if they started insulting the Queen?” they ridiculously asked. Protestors explained that they are against inequality and injustice and will fight it wherever they see it internationally.
It was a successful lobby. International pressure has had an effect on other show trials that the Kazakh regime has attempted, including the release of oil-workers’ lawyer, Natalia Sokolova. Campaign Kazakhstan will not stop until democratic, social and workers’ rights are fully established.