Voices from Kazakhstan: protesters unbowed despite bloody crackdown

Aset Abishev was among the first protesters to take to the streets of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, last week and one of the first to be arrested. After four days in detention, he emerged covered in bruises which he said were the result of being tortured and beaten.

“The police department, every five floors, was a kind of torture conveyor. Screams could be heard from every window,” the longtime opposition activist said. “The tortures were horrible. They put sacks on the young people and strangled them. They hit people, jumped on those who were lying on the ground.

“They were ordinary citizens who were caught on the street, passers-by, taxi drivers,” he added.

The largest and most violent protests in Kazakhstan’s history erupted earlier this month in the western city of Zhanaozen over a fuel price hike.

By the time they were put down nearly a week later, the protests had spread across the country, growing into broader demonstrations against poverty, corruption and the influence of former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. The unrest prompted the government to resign and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to seek help from Russian-led forces from former Soviet states.

Government buildings were set on fire and the president ordered the security forces to fire “without warning”. More than 160 people, including police officers, were killed. Earlier official estimates said more than 10,000 people had been arrested, although on Friday the president said 2,000 had been arrested.

Smoke rises as protesters gather near Almaty City Hall in the most violent protests in Kazakhstan's history

Smoke rises as protesters gather near Almaty City Hall in the most violent protests in Kazakhstan’s history © AFP/Getty

Tomiris Izgutdinova, a 20-year-old student from Almaty, did not join the protests. But her mother, Nuraliya Aytkulova, was shot dead on her way to her daughter’s house. Hit by two bullets in the chest, she was found bruised and beaten in the city’s Republic Square, Izgutdinova said. It is not known who fired the shots that killed her.

“Only this despicable government is to blame,” said Aytkulova’s brother Nuraybek. ” It has to change. What is happening is horrible. They change places in government, when ordinary people can barely survive. And when they speak, they are crushed and literally mixed with dirt, like Nuraliya’s body was.

Government officials did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations of violence. On Friday, Tokayev said Twitter“Those who have committed serious crimes will be punished according to law.”

Addressing parliament earlier this week, Tokayev accused Nazarbayev of creating an oligarchic state that enriched a small group and left millions of ordinary Kazakhs struggling to earn a living. The president reversed some fuel price hikes and promised pay rises and a social fund – paid for by the wealthy – to address grievances.

Nuraliya Aytkulova and her daughter Tomiris Izgutdinova
Nuraliya Aytkulova, left, was shot dead in Almaty on her way to the home of her daughter Tomiris Izgutdinova, right © Tomiris Izgutdinova

But as internet restoration – shut down across the country for much of the past week – revealed the extent of the bloodshed overseen by Tokayev, public opinion has turned against him, according to political analysts and activists.

“Our people are saying, ‘They shut down the internet, bloodshed. They turned on the internet, the evidence poured in,” said Dana Zhanay, an activist who joined the Almaty protests.

“We had only one request: to change the regime in power. People are tired of not having the rights of citizens, of the constant disregard for human rights,” she said.

However, Zhanay and other protesters told the Financial Times they were joined by instigation groups and local Islamist radicals with unclear motives. Groups of “very young men in civilian clothes” were handing out weapons, she said.

Then, she added, a seemingly random mess erupted, with no obvious target. “People were being killed and there was no police, no security services. Right in front of me, there were grandmothers and grandfathers lying on the ground.

The president alleged earlier this week that Almaty was beset by “20,000 terrorists” and accused liberal activists and media of “colluding” with them.

Darkhan Umirbekov, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter in the capital Nur-Sultan, said he was detained and interrogated for several hours after filming the initial protests. He added that the police also showed up at the door of his colleague Makhambet Abzhan, who he said disappeared soon after.

“I’m also sitting on my suitcase like it’s 1937, waiting for them to pick me up,” Zhanay said, referring to the period of Stalinist repression during the Soviet era.

Kazakh riot police arrest protester in Almaty
A Kazakh riot police arrests a protester in Almaty © Vasily Krestyaninov/AP

Activists told the FT the continued brutality was increasing public anger as people railed against what they saw as cosmetic changes in government since Nazarbayev resigned in 2019.

Despite his detention, Abishev said he was determined to live “in a new struggle”. He has just completed a three-year prison sentence after the government designated the opposition movement he is part of, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, as an extremist organisation. The European Parliament called it a peaceful movement.

The organization is led outside France by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former Kazakh banker and government official who fell out with Nazarbayev and fled into exile after the government confiscated his assets and accused him of fraud. He denied the allegations, saying they were politically motivated.

“What we saw was not some kind of unnecessary Russian rebellion,” Ablyazov told the FT. “Mass frustration and hatred has led to what you see. . . It will continue.

Meanwhile, activists said Kazakhstan’s security forces were going door to door, questioning people and checking their phones.

Almaty resident Liaylim Abildayeva said she was breastfeeding her three-month-old daughter when 10 hooded people burst into her apartment and beat her husband in front of her and two other children. They then took him away, saying he looked like someone who had distributed weapons during the protests, she said.

“It’s nothing but a horrible mistake. The children and I will experience lifelong trauma,” she added. “He can be detained for a long time – he is the sole breadwinner in the family.”

Kazakhstan’s countdown to chaos

Protesters clash with Kazakh police in Almaty

© Alexander Kuznetsov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

January 2, 2022

The first protests erupt in the western city of Zhanaozen, prompted by the government’s decision to lift the price cap on liquefied petroleum gas, which is widely used to fuel cars in the region. The demonstrations are peaceful, without arrests.

January 4

The protests have spread to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. The focus shifts to reflect social discontent rooted in inequality and poverty. Protesters are also demanding the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev from his post as head of the Security Council. The demonstrations turned violent and eight police officers were reportedly killed. Hundreds of people are arrested and the internet is shut down.

January 5

The violence escalates and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declares a state of emergency. Tokayev accepts the resignation of his government and takes over the reins of the Security Council. He is appealing to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of former Soviet states, for help in suppressing the protests.

January 6

Russian-led forces arrive tasked with “protecting important state and military facilities and assisting Kazakh law enforcement to stabilize the situation.”

January 7

Tokayev issues a “shoot to kill without warning” advisory to security forces. Thousands of people are arrested and 26 demonstrators and 18 policemen are said to be killed. Internet is partly restored.

January 8

An uneasy calm is restored. Around 164 people are believed to have been killed and thousands detained during the unrest. Karim Massimov, an ally of Nazarbayev, is sacked as security chief and arrested for treason.

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