Dozens of Democratic Party activists arrested in Almaty protests

At the demonstration in Almaty. Photo by Bagdat Asylbek, Fergana

Dozens of activists of the as-yet unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan have been arrested in connection with a brief demonstration held by the party’s members in Almaty. The arrests began yesterday, 21 February, with a number of activists being detained for periods of between 3 and 15 days even before the demonstration had begun, Fergana’s correspondent reports.

On 21 February, journalist and rights advocate Inga Imanbay reported that her husband, Zhanbolat Mamai, one of the Democratic Party’s founders, had been arrested. According to her, Mamai was taken to Karasay district police station, and from there to the administrative court of the Almaty suburb Kaskelen, where he was remanded in custody for three days. “He was arrested without a warrant, without explanation. They didn’t even allow him to see a lawyer. Until 5 a.m. this morning, we didn’t know where he was or how he was doing,” Inga Imanbay told Fergana.

Also arrested was one of the party’s activists, Zhanbolat Rakhmatulla, who was ordered detained for a period of 15 days. According to a statement by the press office of the Kazakh ministry of internal affairs, both Mamai and Rakhmatulla were arrested “for committing administrative infractions under article 488, section 3 of the administrative offences code of Kazakhstan. The grounds for the arrests were Mamai and Rakhmatulla’s calls for members of the public to take part in an unauthorised demonstration which they published on social media.”

It will be recalled that, on 19 February, the leadership of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan decided to cancel the party’s founding congress, scheduled for 22 February, and instead hold a demonstration in protest at the arrest of a number of their members and supporters.

The detention of Democratic Party supporters continued on the morning of 22 February. Several dozen activists who had travelled from around the country were arrested as they left their hostel. They came out wearing white armbands as a sign of their intention to go on hunger strike and shouting cries of “Bostandyk!” (“Freedom!”). “We declare a hunger strike! The use of force against us is forbidden by international laws and the laws of Kazakhstan,” one of the participants shouted, after which the activists began to chant: “Ashtyq! Ashtyq!” (“Hunger strike!”). In spite of this, the activists were quickly arrested and bundled into a waiting police van.

The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law posted a video of the arrests on its Facebook page. Human rights advocate Erlan Kaliev stated that the activists had been taken to the Medeu district police station.

Following the arrests, the remaining DPK supporters started to make their way to Almaty’s Old Square, where the demonstration was scheduled to be held. Standing at the intersection of Tole Bi and Abylai Khan streets, people told journalists of their anger at the detention of the party’s supporters and criticised the president’s claims about the democratisation of society.

“Supporters of Zhanbolat (Mamai) are determined to hold a demonstration. Now everything is cordoned off, only those (of the supporters) who manage to get through are making it here. We’re going to hold the demonstration anyway,” Inga Imanbay said.

As the DPK supporters moved towards Old Square, they were accompanied by a large number of plain-clothed police. Several of them approached each of the journalists present at the scene and inspected and photographed their press passes.

Upon reaching the square’s central monument, the demonstrators took turns speaking into a microphone. Most of those present were over 50 years of age. They were surrounded by law enforcement officers. During a change of speakers, the deputy prosecutor-general of Almaty approached the demonstrators, warning them that “this demonstration is illegal” and demanding that they disperse.

One of those who spoke at the demonstration, Tulegen Shaikhov, answered that protestors would not remain on the square for long, as they planned to march to the Medeu district police station to show their support for the party’s arrested followers.

Holding hands, the demonstrators began to leave the square. As soon as they came level with police vans parked at the nearby roadside, however, the arrests started. First the men, then the women. In the end, Inga Imanbay, too, was ushered into a police vehicle. “Where will she be taken?” journalists asked the police. “Home,” one of them replied. Inga was indeed able to confirm on the phone to Fergana’s correspondent shortly afterwards that she had been released. “Obviously, they were worried about my health (Inga is currently pregnant – Fergana). But I was the only one who was released. I don’t know where the others (the other arrested supporters) are right now. Probably they will take them to the administrative court,” Imanbay said.

After the arrests, Old Square and the area around it were cordoned off by an even larger number of police officers, with soldiers from the country’s National Guard among them.

The demonstration by the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan was organised in lieu of the party’s founding congress. Zhanbolat Mamai announced that 30 people from Mangystau region, who had been travelling to the congress, were arrested by police, with five of them remanded in custody for five days. A number of the party’s supporters in Atyrau, Uralsk and Kostanay were also detained. Mamai declared that the arrests were an attempt to disrupt the congress and announced a demonstration in protest.

Even before the Democratic Party’s demonstration was announced, it had been reported that the movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, officially designated an extremist organisation in the country and banned there, intended to hold a demonstration on the very same day, 22 February. On 20 February, the prosecutor-general’s office called on members of the public to refrain from participating in illegal public events, drawing special attention to the fact that the DCK is a banned organisation and reminding people of the administrative and criminal charges they could face for organising and attending unauthorised demonstrations.

The formation of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan was announced by journalist Zhanbolat Mamai on 16 October last year. Besides Mamai, the group of founding members of the party includes the prominent politician Tulegen Zhukeev, journalist Asel Zhanabaeva and journalist and rights advocate Sergei Duvanov. Mamai has recently publicly called on the minister of internal affairs of Kazakhstan, Yerzhan Turgumbaev to end the provocations directed against the organising committee behind the party’s formation. He complained of repeated attempts by unknown people to disrupt the meetings of Democratic Party supporters.

Photos by Bagdat Asylbek, Fergana