Kazakhstan: Opposition Leaders in Jail on Hunger Strike After Protest
Opposition leaders are back behind bars in Almaty, jailed for organizing a protest less than two weeks after their release from prison for rallying without official permission last month. The growing cycle of protests, arrests, and more protests appears to be encouraging the opposition, which is calling for fair elections and political reform in Kazakhstan.OSDP Azat party co-leader Bolat Abilov and deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov were jailed for 15 days immediately after the February 25 protest. The sentence is “political revenge by the regime,” Kosanov told EurasiaNet.org by telephone as he was being taken to prison, announcing that he and Abilov would stage a hunger strike in protest.The sentences add to mounting tensions in Kazakhstan, which is in the throes of what critics see as a political crackdown launched by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration following December’s deadly violence in Zhanaozen. Astana denies any crackdown.The imprisonments followed a tense rally in central Almaty that saw scuffles between police and protestors amid cries of “Nazarbayev out!” Several demonstrators were arrested, some carried aloft to police vans as they shouted anti-government slogans.OSDP Azat leaders Kosanov, Abilov and Zharmakhan Tuyakbay were rounded up before reaching the rally, as were three other organizers – Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, Bakhytgul Makimbay and Yermurat Bapi. Police moved in as the rally began at noon, piling three demonstrators into a van after a short scuffle. Amid chaotic scenes they then pushed protestors along the Abay thoroughfare away from the planned protest site near the Hotel Kazakhstan. “Nazarbayev out!” one activist shouted several times through a megaphone, before being carried off by police to cries of “shame!” from the crowd of roughly 400.The two-hour rally then proceeded more calmly as speakers called for political reform and freedom for opposition leaders. But more arrests came later, including that of Inga Imanbay of the Rukh.Pen.Til organization, caught on video here. The crowd was vastly outnumbered by heavily equipped riot police. This show of force indicates that “Astana really fears the rise of the protest wave,” the OSDP Azat’s Marzhan Aspandiyarova told EurasiaNet.org. She said her party was asserting its constitutional right to peaceful protest: “This is our town. This is our country.”This was the third rally organized this year by OSDP Azat to protest at what the party and international observers say were fraudulent elections last month. The demonstrations have spiraled into wider calls for political reform and a fair investigation into the Zhanaozen violence. This rally gathered a slightly smaller crowd than last month’s, though many people were unable to attend because of police blockades. The heavy-handed police tactics came in marked contrast to the soft touch at January’s rally and created an atmosphere that was unusually tense for Kazakhstan, where protests are rare and generally proceed calmly.Another demonstration has been called for March 24, suggesting that – as EurasiaNet.org has reported – Astana’s hard line against dissent is serving only to embolden the opposition.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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