ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- More than 100 people planning to attend opposition rallies in Almaty and other cities in Kazakhstan have been detained by police, who were deployed in large numbers in a show of force to halt the unsanctioned events.
The activists from the unregistered Democratic Party shouted “Freedom!” as police detained them on February 22 not far from a central square where supporters had planned to hold an unsanctioned rally amid a heavy police presence in and around the location.
Police had been deployed in large numbers from early morning, sealing off the square and detaining many passersby.
Kazakhstan has long been criticized for its restrictive laws regulating demonstrations. President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev pledged in 2019 to carry out reforms after succeeding Nursultan Nazarbaev, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
On the eve of the rally, Zhanbolat Mamai, a leading figure in the Democratic Party, was arrested and sentenced to three days in administrative detention.
Among those detained on February 22 was Mamai’s wife, Inga Imanbai.
“Were we asked whether we wanted a street named after Nazarbaev, or the capital to be named Nur-Sultan? We used to laugh about North Korea and Turkmenistan. Nazarbaev’s power will end. The Democratic Party will be, and will win,” Imanbai told the gathering before police bundled her into a police car.
Despite no longer being president, Nazarbaev continues to head the ruling Nur-Otan party and remains chairman for life of the powerful Security Council. Just one day after Nazarbaev resigned on March 19, 2019, the capital was renamed by decree from Astana to Nur-Sultan, despite opposition from the public.
Mamai, a filmmaker, told the AFP news agency on February 21 that "at least ten" members of the group had received sentences of up to five days in detention earlier this week.
In 2017, Mamai was convicted on what he and supporters say were trumped-up money-laundering charges and handed a three-year suspended sentence that is still in force.
Later on February 22, another opposition movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), tried to hold a second rally in Almaty, but again police stepped in quickly to block activists from gathering.
According to an RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent, Internet access in Almaty was limited during the day on February 22 as mobile phone services were being blocked.
There were also reports that police had detained other DVK supporters before a planned rally in the capital, Nur-Sultan, one of several other Kazakh cities where the DVK had planned to hold events.
A total of around 100 were detained in both Almaty and Nur-Sultan. A further 20 were taken into police custody in the southern city of Shymkent, and another 10 in the northern city of Aqtobe.
The DVK was banned by a Kazakh court in 2018 as extremist. On February 20, the Kazakh Prosecutor-General’s office called on citizens not to take part in what it called the "illegal" rallies planned by the DVK.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Bolat Dembaev's statement announced via state-run media on February 20 warned citizens that law enforcement officers will "undertake strict measures to prevent illegal rallies," adding that participants in "illegal protests" may face administrative and criminal charges.
"Any actions by any person to organize or take part in an unsanctioned public event will be suppressed... The Prosecutor-General's office calls on the citizens to strictly follow laws and to stay away from provocations and participation in illegal public activities," the statement said.
Dozens of DVK supporters and other activists across Kazakhstan had been fined or sentenced to jail terms ranging from 5 to 15 days ahead of the planned rallies on charges of organizing or taking part in earlier unsanctioned demonstrations.
The DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Europe for more than a decade. He thanked the state prosecutor for giving the group "an advert" ahead of the planned demonstrations.
The Democratic Party had been planning to hold a congress in Almaty on February 22, but cancelled it on February 19 because of the arrests and detentions of party activists.
Authorities have reportedly detained dozens of party supporters in cities around the country, most of them for allegedly participating in earlier unsanctioned demonstrations. Kazakh law requires that a party's founding congress be attended by at least 1,000 people.
Instead of the congress, Mamai's group called on supporters to attend a February 22 protest in the center of Almaty.
Human rights proponents have said Kazakhstan’s law on public gatherings contradicts international standards as it requires preliminary permission from authorities to hold rallies and envisions prosecution for organizing and participating in unsanctioned rallies even though the nation's constitution guarantees its citizens the right of free assembly.
During a working visit to Nur-Sultan earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded what he said was a "real improvement in Kazakhstan" and "real changes" since Toqaev came to power last year.