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Police breaking up the protest at the Chinese Consulate in Almaty on March 15

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Police in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, have dispersed a peaceful picket by several protesters demanding release of their relatives "illegally" held in China, the first time law enforcement has intervened since the daily rallies started more than a month ago.

Protester Baibolat Kunbolat told RFE/RL that when police started forcibly pushing the picketers out of the site on March 15, one of the protesters, an elderly woman, felt unwell and an ambulance was called.

Kunbolat said that after the health scare for the woman, the participants decided not to resist police and left the site.

No reason was given by the police for their intervention after weeks of allowing the protests.

Dozens of ethnic Kazakhs from China have picketed the Chinese Consulate in Almaty since early February, saying their relatives, many of whom were naturalized Kazakh citizens or permanent residents of Kazakhstan, are being held in penitentiaries, including so-called reeducation camps, in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.

The Kazakh Foreign Ministry said on March 15 that the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan, Zhang Xiao, stated in a conversation with a Kazakh Foreign Ministry official that "all ethnic Kazakhs held in Xinjiang are serving prison terms for violating Chinese laws."

Earlier, on March 12, the ministry's spokesman, Mukhtar Karibai, told journalists that Kazakh officials had "asked China for help solving issues" raised by the picketers violating "sanitary regulations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus."

Karibai's statement came one day after the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan posted an interview on Facebook with Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang, who was one of the first individuals to speak publicly about "reeducation camps" for Xinjiang's indigenous, mostly Muslim ethnic groups.

Sauytbay, who fled China in April 2018 and is currently living in Sweden, repeated his claim that thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang were undergoing "political indoctrination" at a network of "reeducation camps," facing "torture and humiliation" there.

U.S. Embassy officials met last week with other ethnic Kazakhs who fled Xinjiang and are currently in Kazakhstan to discuss their ordeals in China.

The U.S. State Department has said that as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous, mostly Muslim, ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers.

China denies that the facilities are internment camps.

Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans.

Han, China's largest ethnicity, is the second-largest community in Xinjiang.

Yulia Latynina, a correspondent for Novaya gazeta, was sprinkled with unknown chemicals in 2017.

The independent Russian investigative newspaper Novaya gazeta says it believes the entrance to the building in Moscow that houses its offices has been targeted in a "chemical attack."

The periodical, which shares the premises with several other companies, said on March 15 that there was a strong chemical odor in the building detected by all employees and visitors to the newspaper's offices.

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Officials and teams from the Emergency Situations Ministry, Interior Ministry, and the Federal Security Service are at the site and working to find the source of the smell, the newspaper said. So far, there has been no official confirmation of any chemical substance in the building.

Novaya gazeta's staff members say that the odor is very similar to one that was present when the home and car of correspondent Yulia Latynina was sprinkled with an unknown chemical in 2017.

That same year, the newspaper received a letter with an unknown white powder inside, which later was shown to be harmless.

In October 2018, unknown people brought three cages with sheep wearing vests with the inscription PRESS on them. Several days before that, unknown individuals threw a funeral wreath in front of the publication’s building with notes threatening Denis Korotkov, a correspondent for the newspaper. Days later, a sheep's head was found near the office with a note threatening all reporters at Novaya gazeta.

Six of the publication's journalists, including well-known reporters Yury Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, and Anastasia Baburova, have been killed since 2001.

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