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Kazakh Police 'Kettle' Freezing Protesters For Nine Hours, Blasting 'Blizzard' Song

Protesters are surrounded by police on election day on January 10.
Protesters are surrounded by police on election day on January 10.

An aggressive crowd-control tactic known as “kettling” has been taken to such an extreme against a few dozen protesters in Kazakhstan that human rights groups are calling it torture.

Police in Almaty also used loudspeakers to intimidate the handful of anti-government demonstrators on January 10 -- repeatedly playing a song by a Kazakh pop star who later performed for a celebration of U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Kettling has caused controversy in the West, where it is used to contain crowds of more than 1,000 people that are deemed by authorities to include violent participants.

Rather than trying to arrest violent individuals or disperse a crowd en masse, police temporarily trap everyone together within a small area -- only gradually allowing people to leave. Usually, crowds are blockaded for a few hours or less.

In London and Washington, Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Toronto, kettling has been used during the past 20 years to contain massive anti-war rallies, anti-globalization demonstrations, and protests by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The tactic also was used against demonstrators near President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

Critics argue that kettling increases the potential for violence -- rather than defusing tensions -- because it traps people together in close proximity.

Some courts in the United States and Britain have deemed kettling to be illegal because it targets entire groups indiscriminately and because individuals who aren’t part of a demonstration can also be trapped within police barricades.

Kazakh 'Kettling'

When a few dozen Kazakh activists tried to march in Almaty on January 10, the day of Kazakhstan’s recent parliamentary elections, the apparent goal of authorities was to snuff out democratic dissent and intimidate people from staging future demonstrations.

The incident was part of a wider, ongoing policy of crackdowns that has cast doubt on President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev’s pledge to make political reforms and improve human rights in the former Soviet republic, which is the largest country in Central Asia.

The security forces in Almaty surrounded two groups of about a dozen people who were calling for constitutional reforms and an end to the dominant rule of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan party.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, police wearing masks and riot gear forced one group to stand bunched together in freezing temperatures for nine hours without food, water, or an opportunity to use a bathroom.

Another group that included a pregnant woman and two children was forced to stand together like canned sardines for seven hours.

Meanwhile, police took turns in rotating shifts so they could rest, eat, and stay warm.

At least one demonstrator collapsed with hypothermia and had to be taken away in an ambulance before authorities allowed the protesters to leave.

Psychologically Chilling

Inga Imanbai, a freelance journalist known for critical reports about the Kazakh government, was among those who were kettled and forced to stand in the cold for hours.

“First, there were police provocations for about 40 minutes,” Imanbai told RFE/RL. “Then they brought in loudspeakers and played the song Blizzard Again [super loud] about 20 times in a row. I accepted it as a kind of psychological pressure.”

Blizzard Again is a love song by the internationally renown Kazakh pop star Dimash Kudaibergen.

With lyrics in the Kazakh language, Kudaibergen repeatedly sings the chorus refrain: “My heart is freezing. I feel the chill in my soul.”

Imanbai explains that the innocuous love song, when used as a psychological weapon against hedged-in Kazakh protesters, has an even more chilling connotation.

In that context, she says, the title Blizzard Again hints at a deadly crackdown launched by Soviet authorities in December 1986 against thousands of young Kazakhs who dared to stage anti-Kremlin protests in the streets of Alma-Ata -- now known as Almaty.

The unexpected and unprecedented “December” protests were a response to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s removal of Dinmukhamed Kunaev as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan.

Gorbachev replaced the ethnic Kazakh leader with an outsider from Russia named Gennady Kolbin.

The December protests were tolerated for two days. But on the third day, Soviet security forces launched a brutal crackdown codenamed Operation Blizzard.

Dinmukhamed Kunaev, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan
Dinmukhamed Kunaev, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan

The actual death toll from Operation Blizzard may never be known.

Officially, Soviet authorities claimed three people were killed. But witnesses say the real number was much higher.

Many young Kazakhs who took part in the protests were later sent to Soviet prisons or expelled from their universities.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the December protest movement was used by Nazarbaev and his successive governments as a symbol of Kazakh independence.

That has ensured that all Kazakhs remember Operation Blizzard and, for them, brings an ominous double meaning to the song title Blizzard Again.

International View

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the U.S.-based nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch have condemned the kettling operations of police in Almaty as “repressive tactics against peaceful demonstrators.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concludes that crowd-control tactics like kettling should only be used by authorities in exceptional cases.

The OSCE’s guidelines on freedom of peaceful assembly state: “Tactics of holding protesters in a confined space, known as ‘kettling,’ and other such tactics are characterized by the fact that they do not distinguish between those who participate and those who do not participate in the meeting, or between peaceful and nonpeaceful participants.”

The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) says police operations to surround and block a group of demonstrators should “only be applied if necessary.”

A body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the OHCHR, says such measures should be applied in proportion to the need to “suppress actual committed violence or to eliminate the imminent threat of violence.”

In many cases, the OHCHR concludes, specific individuals should be targeted rather than entire groups.

It says “particular attention should be paid to blocking, as far as possible, only those directly involved in the violence” and limiting the duration of kettling operations to “the minimum time necessary.”

With reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan in Prague and RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Darkhan Omirbek in Almaty, Kazakhstan