ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN (AFP) – Police in Kazakhstan detained around 200 people as two opposition groups called for anti-government demonstrations in the oil-rich Central Asian country.
An AFP correspondent saw police detain around 30 activists from the unregistered Democratic Party as they attempted to hold a protest in the largest city Almaty.
Eyewitnesses said police also detained up to 70 people en route to the city square where the protest was held.
Police later detained scores more as they arrived for a separate rally called by the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement. Wheelchair user Erik Jumabayev was among the movement’s supporters detained by riot police, who scooped him into an ambulance that then drove away.
Authoritarian Kazakhstan has long faced criticism from local and international rights groups for its restrictive laws regulating demonstrations. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pledged to reform laws governing freedom of assembly shortly after succeeding long-ruling Nursultan Nazarbayev as president last year. But there is little sign of any change on the ground, with dissent still crushed in systematic fashion.
Police have also stepped up detentions of protesters on the eve of demonstrations.
Prominent Democratic Party activist and filmmaker Zhanbolat Mamay was one of dozens of activists who were detained ahead of Saturday’s demonstrations.
Mamay was arrested on Friday night and sentenced to three days’ detention for calling for the unsanctioned rally. The protesters shouted “Freedom to Mamay!” at the Democratic Party’s demonstration on Saturday and Mamay’s pregnant wife, journalist Inga Imanbay, was among the activists detained.
She was later released.
Mamay told AFP by telephone Friday that “at least 10” members of his group had received sentences of up to five days in detention earlier this week – a measure he said was intended to prevent the Democratic Party holding a conference.
The Democratic Party is a new group created last year in a country where there is no established political opposition. Mamay said the group plans to register as a party, but complained that its activists across the country are already experiencing surveillance and other forms of pressure from authorities.
Authorities have launched regular crackdowns on the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement, led from abroad by former energy minister and banker Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Ablyazov in 2017 announced the group’s intention to topple the Kazakh regime.