Kazakh police have arrested about two dozen people in Almaty in an apparent effort to preempt new protests urging the government not to pursue large-scale farmland privatization.
The arrests came May 7 as several dozen people gathered in the central square. Police surrounded the gathering and dispersed it immediately, despite the participants saying they had only come to lay flowers at the square's monument to Kazakh independence as the country marks its national Army Day.
Police also arrested some activists in their neighborhoods before they could join the rally. All those arrested May 7 in the square or en route were released shortly afterwards.
Hundreds of Kazakhs have taken to the streets in several cities over the last two weeks in a rare show of public dissent against President Nursultan Nazarbaev's government.
The protesters demand the reversal of a legal reform aimed at launching large-scale privatization of state-owned farmland. The reform includes allowing foreigners to lease plots for up to 25 years, an increase from the current 10 years.
The protests have seen two ministers resign as Nazarbaev has sought to defuse the crisis by declaring on May 5 that he would impose a moratorium until 2017 on the privatization plans.
Kazakh Economy Minister Erbolat Dosaev resigned immediately after Nazarbaev's announcement. Agriculture Minister Asylzhan Mamytbekov resigned on May 6, after Nazarbaev officially reprimanded him for not being fully fit for his post.
The government had previously announced that just under 2 percent of the country's agricultural land would be put up for privatization in an auction process beginning on July 1.
In declaring the moratorium on May 5, Nazarbaev did not say when in 2017 the plan would now be implemented. But he announced the formation of a government commission to oversee land reforms, adding that "we have to do everything to explain to our people the legislation on land privatization via the commission's work."
Demonstrators have also expressed concern that the land auctions would not be done in a transparent way and that the country's elite, rather than farmers, would end up owning the land and selling it at high profit to foreigners.
The government has stressed that while foreigners would be able to rent farmland for up to 25 years, they would not be able to own land or participate in the planned auctions.
Amid the protests authorities have warned that it is a crime to spread "false information about land privatization."
With reporting by Reuters