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On March 22, 2018, RFE/RL correspondents witnessed several incidents in Astana's central square in which people holding blue balloons were stopped and forced to go police buses.

ASTANA -- Police in Kazakhstan's capital hunted for people holding blue balloons during Norouz new year celebrations on March 22, following fugitive opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov's Facebook call for Kazakhs to express support for his banned movement by displaying blue balloons.

RFE/RL correspondents witnessed several incidents in Astana's central square in which people holding blue balloons were stopped and forced to go to police buses where their identities were checked and the balloons confiscated. The individuals were then released. Police officers were not able to explain why they were confiscating the balloons.

Many of those holding blue balloons say they bought them because they were of the same color as the Kazakh national flag and had designs from the flag printed on them.

RFE/RL correspondent Erzhan Amirzhanov was also briefly detained when he was recording exchanges between police and people with balloons.

In some cases, police confiscated blue balloons from toddlers or asked their parents to blow them up in their presence.

On March 21, Ablyazov, who is a former banker and a vocal critic of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, called on his supporters via Facebook to hold blue balloons when celebrating Norouz, as a symbol of call for changes and reforms and support for his Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement.

He later posted several videos showing how police were hunting for blue balloons in Kazakhstan.

On March 13, a court in Kazakhstan branded Ablyazov's DVK movement an extremist organization and banned its operations in the country.

Ablyazov and several other Kazakh opposition figures living abroad announced the creation of the DVK movement in April 2017, saying its goal would be "democratic reforms in Kazakhstan."

Wanted by Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine on suspicion of embezzling some $5 billion, Ablyazov has been living abroad since 2009. He denies any wrongdoing and contends that the case against him is politically motivated.

In June, a court in Kazakhstan sentenced Ablyazov to 20 years in prison in absentia after convicting him of organizing and leading a criminal group, abuse of office, embezzlement, and financial mismanagement.

Opponents and rights groups say that Nazarbaev, who has held power in the Central Asian nation since before the 1991 Soviet breakup, has taken systematic steps to suppress dissent and sideline potential opponents.

Human Rights Watch Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow says Turkey has detained two Tajik opposition politicians wanted in Tajikistan but will not extradite them at this point.

Swerdlow told RFE/RL on March 23 that Turkey's Constitutional Court had ruled to suspend the men's extradition amid concerns that they might face torture while in custody in Tajikistan.

A spokesman for the Group 24 opposition movement, Saidali Ashurov, who also lives abroad, told RFE/RL that Group 24 leader Suhrobi Zafar and another member, Nasim Sharipov, were arrested in their homes in Istanbul on March 19.

Ashurov said members were informed by Turkish authorities that the possible extradition of Zafar and Sharipov has been suspended for three months.

The Tajik Embassy in Ankara and Tajik Interior Ministry officials told RFE/RL that they had no information about the two politicians.

Tajik authorities banned Group 24 in 2014 after labeling it an extremist group.

Group 24 was founded by fugitive tycoon Umarali Quvatov, who was shot dead in Turkey in March 2015.

Opponents of President Emomali Rahmon who live abroad say they believe Quvatov's killing was orchestrated by Tajik authorities.

Several members of the group were jailed in Tajikistan after he was killed.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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