Kazakh authorities have intensified a crackdown on activists ahead of planned nationwide protests on May 21 against controversial new legislation on the privatization of agricultural land.
Courts handed down short jail sentences to several activists in Astana, Almaty, and other cities, while police searched the homes and offices of government opponents, according to activists and authorities.
Hundreds of people have protested in several cities in recent weeks in a rare display of discontent in the oil-rich Central Asian nation, ruled since the Soviet era by authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
The protesters oppose new land privatization laws that will allow foreigners to lease state-owned agricultural plots for up to 25 years.
Activists say they fear land auctions would not be transparent, paving the way for corruption. They have said they plan to hold large demonstrations on May 21 despite the crackdown and Nazarbaev’s May 5 order to postpone the implementation of the legislation until 2017.
In the western city of Atyrau, where the first protests took place last month, a court handed down 15-day jail sentences to activists Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayanov at a hearing that lasted until the early hours of May 18, relatives said.
Tolepkali Ayanov, a defense lawyer who represented his son, Talgat, said the activists were arrested in the morning the day before.
He said that the two men were accused of planning unsanctioned public rallies, and that their social media posts were used as evidence against them.
"Bokaev stated on Facebook … that he will join the rally," Tolepkali Ayanov said. "Talgat Ayanov … said on Facebook that everyone has the right to organize a rally."
Several Activists Detained
Similar charges were brought against several activists in Almaty, where at least five people were sentenced to 15 days in custody in separate trials late on May 17 as well as on May 18.
Almaty city court officials confirmed the sentences but provided no details.
Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, the leader of the nongovernmental organization Ar.Rukh.Khaq (Dignity, Spirit, Truth), was among those jailed in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city.
Shortly before the hearing, Toregozhina told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service by telephone that she was in a police vehicle, being taken to court along with several other activists. She said the activists were not given access to defense lawyer.
In the city of Oral, activist Zhanat Esentaev was jailed on May 17 and was being kept in three-day pretrial custody, his lawyer said.
Esentaev is being accused of inciting social and religious discord, the lawyer told RFE/RL.
Activists said police searched the homes of Esentaev and another local campaigner, Isatay Utepov, as well as the office of Abyroy, an NGO.
Hearings continued in Oral on May 18, with Bauyrzhan Alipkaliev and Aibolat Bukenov sentenced to 15 days in custody each.
Both men were accused of organizing illegal protests, a charge that stemmed from their recent social-media posts about the planned May 21 protests.
Oral city authorities recently rejected a request by activists for permission to hold a rally against the land-reform legislation on May 21.
In the capital, Astana, meanwhile, activist Maksat Ilyasuly was sentenced to 10 days in custody late on May 17, his wife told RFE/RL.
Ilyasuly had recently quit a commission authorities set up to review the land-reform plans.
The government established the commission and invited some opposition figures to join it after Nazarbaev postponed implementation of the legislation until 2017 – both apparent attempts to appease its opponents and avert further protests.
The wave of protests began when at least 1,000 people rallied in Atyrau on April 23, and soon spread to other cities.
Nazarbaev's government has used a combination of force and restrictive legislation to discourage protests, which have not been frequent in post-Soviet Kazakhstan.
They became rarer after police fatally shot at least 16 people during protests by oil workers and their supporters in the southwestern city of Zhanaozen and the nearby town of Shetpe in December 2011.