Over 100 people were detained across authoritarian Kazakhstan Saturday in the first opposition protests since the government relaxed some lockdown restrictions.
An AFP correspondent saw five demonstrators detained in central Almaty while witnesses said that around 70 were held in other parts of the Central Asian country’s former capital.
Radio Free Europe’s Kazakh service reported 10 detentions in the capital Nur-Sultan, while a journalist in the northwestern city of Uralsk said up to 30 had been detained there.
“They filled up two jeeps and two buses with protesters, then drove them off,” Raul Uporov, a journalist with the independent Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper, told AFP.
Health officials this week warned citizens not to join the protests, citing government regulations prohibiting people gathering in groups during the coronavirus outbreak.
The warning came despite the easing of some virus measures that has seen pedestrian areas throng with people again.
Kazakh protests are generally small-scale and the government imposes strong restrictions on freedom of assembly.
The two groups that called for the Saturday protests — the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) and the Democratic Party — have both complained of government persecution of their members.
The Democratic Party, cofounded by local activist Zhanbolat Mamay, is currently unregistered.
DCK and its affiliate the Koshe Partiyasi (Party of the Street) have been designated as extremist groups by Kazakh courts.
Demands issued by the protesters included full relief for debtors hit by the lockdown and reclamation of privatised land.
Several protesters in Almaty also spoke out against neighbouring China’s economic expansion in the oil-rich republic.
Some of the speakers were drowned out by the noise of mass disinfection activities carried out nearby by state employees wearing full body protective gear.
The two groups are rivals and their members engaged in heated arguments over their opposition credentials, an AFP correspondent saw.
Last month Kazakhstan passed a new law on demonstrations which the authorities said brought local legislation in line with international standards.
But Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, a UN envoy on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, criticised the draft legislation as overly restrictive.
The protests come a year after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev won a weakly contested vote to cement his position as the handpicked successor of Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev, 79, retired from the presidency in March last year but has retained powerful positions including the chairmanship of the ruling party and the security council.