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Kazakh Woman Faces Prison For Livestreaming Protests

Protesters rally against the government in Shymkent on January 4.

SHYMKENT, Kazakhstan -- A woman activist is facing a long jail term after livestreaming the January anti-government protests in Kazakhstan on Facebook.

Karima Haidarbekova, 40, says she joined the demonstrations in her home city of Shymkent in Kazakhstan's south on January 4 to "let the authorities know" about the plight of ordinary people.

She livestreamed the rallies and speeches in the city's central square where thousands of people gathered for peaceful demonstrations before violence later broke out and was harshly put down by security forces.

Some 227 people reportedly died in the unrest, in which security officials were given a "shoot-to-kill" order by President Qasym-Jomart Toqaev.

Haidarbekova was arrested on January 8 as the authorities hunted down activists and government critics, blaming them for inciting the unrest that turned bloody.

Two of Karima Haidarbekova's six children are disabled and she relies on a meager allowance from the state to survive.
Two of Karima Haidarbekova's six children are disabled and she relies on a meager allowance from the state to survive.

The charges against Haidarbekova include assaulting a government officer, intentionally causing damage to public property, and attacking official buildings.

Assaulting a government officer carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, while the two other charges can lead to up to two and seven years of imprisonment, respectively, if she's found guilty.

Similar charges have been brought against dozens of activists across the authoritarian Central Asian country since the multiday protests. Critics say the move is aimed at sending a chilling warning to others.

Haidarbekova denies the charges and insists she hasn't attacked anyone or damaged any property.

The single mother of six said people took to the streets to voice their discontent about social and economic problems, and demanded political change. Haidarbekova gave a speech during the rallies calling on the government to heed the people's demands.

"People are a great force. No one can defeat the people," Haidarbekova said to a cheering crowd on the evening of January 4.

The nationwide rallies began with a small protest against a fuel-price rise in the western town of Zhanaozen on January 2. The following day the demonstrations spread to other cities across the oil-rich country.

But many of the rallies turned violent and the government accused protesters of attacking police and seizing official buildings that, according to authorities, forced security forces to open fire on demonstrators.

But many protesters maintain the demonstrations were peaceful until some unknown groups of men started looting and attacking some security forces. Some protesters suspect "provocateurs" were planted by the authorities to give the police a pretext to disperse the demonstrations.

'We're Against Violence'

Haidarbekova told RFE/RL before she was detained that she had witnessed police firing on peaceful people and wounding several protesters. "I was at the rally until the end. They shot at unarmed people," she said. "In the morning police began using water cannons and then the crowd dispersed."

On the first day of the Shymkent protests, Haidarbekova said everyone was against violence. "We support the demands of the protesters in Zhanaozen today, but we don't want a repeat of that bloodshed and shooting that happened there a decade ago," she said, referring to the December 2011 events in Zhanaozen, when at least 14 protesters were shot dead as they clashed with police.

"Prices are rising not only for fuel, but also for food, and these problems impact people not only in Zhanaozen but all over the country," she said.

Kazakh Police Seen Taking Badly Wounded Protesters From Hospital To Jail
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Two of Haidarbekova's six children are handicapped and she had to quit her job to look after them. Haidarbekova says the family relies on the less than $100 a month they receive from the state. The money is barely enough for basic foodstuffs, she explains.

Haidarbekova is being held in a pretrial detention center where she in not allowed visits by family and friends. Her only contact with the outside world is a state-appointed lawyer.

Haidarbekova's elderly mother told RFE/RL that after her arrest, the authorities sought to place her underage children in an orphanage. There was no immediate comment from local officials about the claim, which RFE/RL cannot independently verify.

The grandmother is looking after the children and has written to officials asking for temporary custody. "The children are asking about their mother and I tried to explain the situation to the elder ones," she said. "But I don't know what to tell the younger children."

More than 12,000 people were arrested during and after the protests. Many were released within days but dozens of activists remain in custody, many of them facing criminal charges.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Dilara Isa of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service in Shymkent