Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Kazakhstan’s Authorities Backtrack on Freedom of Assembly

Around 80 activists were arrested on March 1 in Almaty in connection to an unsanctioned rally in memory of an activist who died in jail. 

Paolo Sorbello
Kazakhstan’s Authorities Backtrack on Freedom of Assembly
Credit: Pixabay

Several Kazakh opposition forces called for a rally on March 1 in memory of Dulat Agadil, an activist who died while in pre-trial detention on February 25. Despite earlier openings of a more lenient attitude toward peaceful rallies, the authorities gathered in large numbers and arrested around 80 people, according to the Ministry of Interior, between activists and passers-by.

The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), an illegal organization in Kazakhstan, the Democratic Party, which has not yet managed to register, and Oyan Qazaqstan, a youth movement, all called protests in front of the administrative buildings of Almaty, Nur-Sultan, and other cities.

Only a couple dozen people, however, reached the square in front of the “akimat” in Almaty, before being arrested by the several hundred policemen that occupied every corner of the neighborhood around the mayor’s office. Almost all members of Oyan Qazaqstan that wanted to take part in the rally were arrested at a coffee shop, where they had gathered beforehand. Dozens of special security forces waited for them outside and carried around 30 of them, including three journalists, into police vans. Some other members of Oyan and other organizations were stopped at their doorsteps as they left their homes. By the time the rally was set to begin, more than 50 activists were already in detention at several police stations around the city.

In an all-too-common fashion, at the planned protest site, the authorities fenced off the park around the akimat and also organized the comical and convenient cleaning of four statues, with a dozen cleaners occupying the monument opposite to the administration’s building. In a grotesque procession, hundreds of security forces removed around 30 activists, two journalists, and a handful passers-by, put them into police vans and sent them away from the deserted Satpayev Street. After just an hour, only journalists in yellow vests and police were left on the square, prompting a thorough check of press accreditations. Whereas in other instances checks had been carried out randomly, this time each journalist was surrounded by a handful of anti-riot police and one or two in plain clothes. A blogger, who did not have accreditation, was carried into a police van.

Once arrested, according to the law, the detained can be kept at the police station for a maximum of three hours without formal charges. Most activists were detained for five or more hours without explanation. Activists that arrived at the police stations to support their companions were sent away to other detention centers, with the authorities unwilling to disclose a list of the detained. 

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Five activists were freed at 5 p.m., to a jubilant crowd that had patiently waited for them for hours outside of one detention center. During the wait, they chanted “Release them! Wake up, police!” to which the police chief responded with an odd proposal: “If you stop making noise and disturbing the neighborhood, we will release the detained,” a lawyer reported.

More activists were progressively released throughout the evening. Those who came out of the police stations timidly smiled, because most of them had suffered physical or psychological pressure, while also being denied a lawyer. “It was bad in there,” one Oyan activist said, “they asked us to sign several documents, some saying that we are members of the DVK, which makes no sense.” 

Assem Zhapisheva, an outspoken member of Oyan Qazaqstan, was detained just outside her home as she was getting in a taxi to reach the protest site.

“The police prevented me from getting in the taxi and took me away, as my neighbors were shouting, asking what could I possibly have done to deserve such treatment,” Zhapisheva told The Diplomat.

Several activists could now face fines up to around $100 or five days in jail, for “resistance” to police operations.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev repeatedly mentioned in his addresses to the nation that all citizens of Kazakhstan have the constitutional right to conduct peaceful rallies. Just two days ahead of the March 1 rallies, he tweeted that “the organizers of the rally are obliged to inform the authorities about the number of participants.” Yet, the disproportionate response to the planned rally on March 1 highlighted that the authorities have struggled to keep a finger on the pulse of protest sentiments in the country. The preventive detentions of dozens of activists and the carpet arrests of anyone who arrived on the square precluded the peaceful rally from even starting.

Importantly, protesters were gathering to voice their anger about the death of Dulat Agadil, detained in Nur-Sultan after the February 22 protests. Activists are skeptical of the official explanation of “death by heart failure” offered by the authorities. According to many, Agadil’s death could have resulted from police violence and torture during his detention.

Neither police violence within the walls of the detention centers, nor the repression of peaceful activists, seem to be in line with Tokayev’s declarations on the importance of respecting the constitution. Oyan Qazaqstan, whose members cite articles from the constitution in their slogans, could not join the rally they helped organize. Other activists, mostly recognizable as DVK supporters, were swiftly arrested. After Tokayev’s first year in power, the “spring” that the locals longed for has not yet arrived.