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Kazakh Police Detain Hunger Strikers Demanding Release Of Political Prisoners

Police detained more than a dozen activists in Shymkent on July 1.
Police detained more than a dozen activists in Shymkent on July 1.

SHYMKENT, Kazakhstan -- Police in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent have detained more than a dozen activists, including three who have been on a hunger strike for weeks to push for the release of political prisoners.

Some 50 men in civilian clothes surrounded three hunger strikers and more than a dozen of their supporters on July 1 in front of the Shymkent city administration's headquarters and forcibly took them to a police station.

The chief of the city police department's anti-extremism desk, Ernar Altaev, who was at the site, refused to explain to RFE/RL why the group, which was also protesting court decisions to ban two political movements, was detained.

Two masked men at the site opened umbrellas with which they tried to block the cameras of RFE/RL reporters from recording the detentions, a method previously used by unknown individuals apparently associated with local authorities in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Kazakhstan's Mysterious Media-Blocking Umbrella Men
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Dozens of activists have been on hunger strike since June 19 in several cities in the Central Asian nation, including Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Oral, Oskemen, and Shymkent. They have been demanding the cancellation of court decisions to label as extremist and ban the unregistered opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement and the associated Koshe (Street) party.

Several activists in Kazakhstan have been handed prison sentences or parole-like sentences in recent years for their support or involvement in the activities of the DVK and Koshe, as well as for taking part in unsanctioned rallies organized by the two groups.

DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government.

Human rights groups have said Kazakhstan’s law on public gatherings contradicts international standards as it requires preliminary permission from the 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.