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Kazakh Journalists, Activists Detained And Websites Blocked

  • RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

Security forces have detained hundreds of journalists, activists, and demonstrators in various Kazakh cities amid a call by the opposition for nationwide demonstrations against changes to Kazakhstan's Land Code.

Dozens of reporters were detained in the capital, Astana, as well as in Almaty, Qaraghandy, Oral, Shymkent, and the western city of Atyrau in the government crackdown.

More than 1,000 activists and people in squares or on streets close to city squares were also apprehended by police.

Many of the journalists -- including several from Interfax and RFE/RL's Kazakh Service -- and people who were detained reported being released after being held by police for a few hours.

Some journalists said their video recordings and pictures had been erased by police while they were detained.

Kazakh Information and Communications Minister Dauren Abaev said on May 21 that he would "work to find out why [the journalists] were detained."

The websites of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service are blocked but access to the station's Facebook and YouTube sites was restored later on May 21 after offering only intermittent service since May 20.

WATCH: Amid a crackdown on protests against changes to Kazakhstan's Land Code, police in Oral detained RFE/RL correspondent Sanat Urnaliev on May 21. He was released after being held for eight hours. (RFE/RL's Kazakh Service)

Hundreds of people attempted in the morning to gather at the central Republic Square in Almaty -- the country's largest city -- but were either detained or forced away by police who had cordoned off the square and confronted the demonstrators on the streets leading to the square.

Others were chased down and detained by police while walking away from the squares.

A small rally did occur in the northern city of Pavlodar, where at least 35 people gathered in the city center. Opposition activist Serikbay Alibaev began to address the crowd but police intervened and dispersed the crowd.

Alibaev was detained by the police.

The government crackdown comes as opposition activists called for rallies to be held across the country to protest proposed changes to laws that would allow farmland to be sold and would allow foreign investors to lease parcels of land for agricultural use for up to 25 years.

Demonstrations broke out in late April -- mostly in western cities --- shortly after the government announced the proposed changes to the Land Code.

But the government quickly backtracked, saying any reforms to the Land Code would not occur until 2017.

Agriculture Minister Asylzhan Mamytbekov and Economy Minister Erbolat Dosaev both resigned within two days after the postponement of the land-reform plans were announced.

Security forces then began raiding the homes of activists and journalists, often seizing computers and other equipment.

In a statement on May 12, a panel of UN human rights experts called on the Kazakh government to "immediately end all forms of persecution and take effective measures to protect civil society."

In recent days, dozens of activists have been detained and had their homes searched before being handed 10 to 15 day sentences after being convicted of planning unsanctioned public rallies in the days before May 21.

In the western city of Atyrau, where the protests started last month when more than 1,000 people rallied, 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.

Posts on social-media sites were used as "evidence" against the two men.

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 and May 18.

Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, the leader of the NGO Ar.Rukh.Khaq (Dignity, Spirit, Truth), was among those jailed in Almaty.

In Astana, 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 -- apparent attempts to appease its opponents and avert further protests.

The protests are a rare display of discontent in the oil-rich Central Asian nation, ruled since the Soviet era by authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Nazarbaev’s government has used a combination of deadly force and restrictive legislation and arrests to clamp down on protests and other forms of dissent during his rule.

A rare protest in the southwestern towns of Zhanaozen and Shetpe in December 2011 ended tragically when police fatally shot at least 16 people during protests by oil workers and their supporters.

With reporting by Interfax