Voices from Kazakhstan: protesters unbowed despite bloody crackdown

Aset Abishev was one of the first protesters to take to the streets last week in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, and one of the first to be arrested. After four days in custody, he emerged covered in bruises that he believed were the result of torture and beating.

“The police station, all five floors, was like a torture conveyor belt. Screams could be heard from every window,” the longtime opposition activist claimed. “The torture was terrible. They put bags on young people and strangled them. They beat people, jumped on those lying on the ground.

“These were ordinary citizens who were grabbed in the street, passers-by, taxi drivers,” he added.

The largest and most violent protests in Kazakhstan’s history erupted early this month in the western city of Zhanaozen over a rise in fuel prices.

By the time they were crushed almost a week later, the demonstrations had spread across the country and had grown into wider protests over poverty, corruption and the influence of former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. The unrest prompted the government to resign and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to ask Russian-led troops from former Soviet states for help.

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

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

Smoke rises as protesters gather near Almaty City Hall during 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 on her way to her daughter’s house. She was shot twice in the chest and found bruised and battered in Republic Square, Izgutdinova said. It is unclear who fired the shots that killed her.

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

Government officials did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations of violence. On Friday, Tokaev further said: Twitter: “Those who have committed serious crimes will be punished in accordance with the law.”

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

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

But when the internet recovery — which had been shut down nationwide for most of the past week — exposed the extent of the bloodshed under Tokayev’s watch, public sentiment turned against him, according to political analysts and activists. .

“Our people say, ‘They turned off the internet, the blood was flowing. They turned on the internet, the evidence flowed,” said Dana Zhanay, an activist who joined the protests in Almaty.

“We had only one demand: change the regime in power. People are tired of not having civil rights, of constant disrespect for human rights,” she said.

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

Then, she added, seemingly random disorder broke out, with no apparent purpose. “People were being killed and there was no police, no security service. Right in front of me were grandfathers and grandmothers on the floor.”

The president earlier this week claimed that Almaty was ravaged by “20,000 terrorists” and accused activists and the liberal media of “conspiracy” with them.

Darkhan Umirbekov, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the capital Nur-Sultan, said he was detained and interrogated for several hours after filming the first protests. He said police also came to the door of his colleague Makhambet Abzhan, who he claims disappeared shortly after.

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

Kazakh riot police detain protester in Almaty
A Kazakh riot police officer detains a protester in Almaty © Vasily Krestyaninov/AP

Activists told the FT that the continued brutality has fueled public anger, with people ranting about what they saw as the only cosmetic government changes since Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019.

Despite his detention, Abishev said he was determined to live “in further strife”. He only recently served a three-year prison sentence after the government designated the opposition movement he belongs to, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, as an extremist organization. The European Parliament called it a peaceful movement.

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

“What we have seen is not some sort of senseless Russian uprising,” Ablyazov told the FT. “Mass frustration and hatred have led to what you see. . . It will continue.”

Meanwhile, activists have said Kazakhstan’s security forces went door-to-door, questioning people and checking their phones.

Almaty resident Liaylim Abildayeva said she was breastfeeding her three-month-old daughter when ten people in balaclavas stormed into her flat and beat her husband in front of her and two other children. They then took him, claiming he resembled someone handing out weapons during the protests, she said.

“It is nothing but a terrible mistake. The children and I will be traumatized for life,” she added. “He can be held for a long time – he is the sole breadwinner in the family.”

Kazakhstan countdown to chaos

Protesters clash with Kazakh police in Almaty

© Alexander Kuznetsov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

January 2, 2022

Protests have erupted in the western city of Zhanaozen over the government’s decision to lift price caps for liquefied petroleum gas, which is widely used to fuel cars in the region. The demonstrations are peaceful, there are no arrests.

January 4

Protests spread to Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. The focus shifts to reflect social discontent rooted in inequality and poverty. Protesters also demand the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev from his position as head of the Security Council. The protests turned violent, with eight police officers reportedly killed. Hundreds are arrested and the internet is down.

January 5th

Violence escalates and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declares a state of emergency. Tokayev accepts the resignation of his government and takes over the Security Council. He is calling on the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of former Soviet states, to help crush the protests.

6 January

Russian-led troops arrive charged with “protecting key state and military facilities and assisting Kazakh law enforcement in stabilizing the situation”.

January 7

Tokayev issues a “shoot to kill without warning” notice to security forces. Thousands are arrested and 26 protesters and 18 police officers are reported to have been killed. The internet has been partially restored.

January 8

An uneasy calm returns. About 164 people were reportedly killed and thousands were detained during the unrest. Karim Massimov, an ally of Nazarbayev, is fired as security chief and arrested on treason charges.

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