ALMATY -- Dozens of activists rallied in Kazakhstan's commercial capital calling for political reforms and to demand they be allowed to form a new political party.
The September 13 rally, organized by the unregistered Democratic Party, also targeted government policies allowing the sale of Kazakh land to foreigners, and with speakers warning of creeping Chinese influence in the country.
Police did not intervene to halt the event, which saw speakers criticizing President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and calling on him to carry out democratic and economic reforms.
Police and medics were seen patrolling the area and taking people's temperatures as part of anti-COVID-19 measures.
Demonstrators also chanted slogans demanding freedom for a dissident poet, and, in a sign of the ongoing tensions with neighboring China, calling for Beijing's ambassador to leave the country.
The demonstrators also criticized longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbaev, who stepped down as president in 2019 after nearly 30 years in power in 2019.
Despite formally leaving the presidency, Nazarbaev continues to lead the ruling party and the country's secretive Security Council, and wields wide behind-the-scenes influence.
Founded by former journalist Zhanbolat Mamai, the Democratic Party has been repeatedly thwarted by authorities in its efforts to become a registered party.
The group had sought to organize its first congress in February, an important legal step in the registration process, but then canceled it because of arrests and detentions of party activists.
"Why can't we criticize the authorities?" Mamai told the crowd. "If they do not fulfill the people's demands, let them leave! If they do not listen to people's problems, they are not worthy of being leaders."
The Kazakh economy has been hit hard by the drop in global oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic, which has choked off growth and forced many businesses to be shuttered.
Under growing pressure at home and abroad, Toqaev has called for changes to two important government agencies that play important roles in managing the economy.
And in a speech to a joint session of parliament earlier this month, Toqaev proposed allowing direct elections for local governors starting next year. He called for splitting the federal emergency situations agency away from the Interior Ministry, to allow it a freer hand in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
Smaller protests were held in the southern city of Shymkent and in the northern city of Aktobe on September 13.