Voices from Kazakhstan: protesters do not yield despite bloody crackdown

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

“The police department, all five floors, is a kind of torture conveyor. The longtime opposition activist allegedly could hear screams coming from every window. “The tortures were horrible. They put bags on the young man and strangled him. They beat people, jumped on people lying on the floor.

He added: “These are ordinary citizens caught by the neck in the street, passersby, taxi drivers.

The largest and most violent protests in Kazakhstan’s history broke out earlier this month in the western city of Zhanaozen due to rising fuel prices.

By the time they were quelled nearly a week later, protests had spread across the country, turning into broader protests about poverty, corruption and the influence of former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. The unrest led to the resignation of the government and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev asked Russian-led forces from the 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. According to previous official estimates, more than 10,000 people have been arrested, although on Friday the president said 2,000 people had been detained.

Smoke rises as protesters gather near Almaty town hall in the most violent demonstration in Kazakhstan's history

Smoke rises as protesters gather near Almaty town hall in the most violent demonstration in Kazakhstan’s history © AFP/Getty

Tomiris Izgutdinova, a 20-year-old student from Almaty, did not join the protest. But her mother, Nuraliya Aytkulova, was shot dead on the way home to her daughter. Shot twice in the chest, she was found bruised and battered on the city’s Republic Square, Izgutdinova said. It is unclear who fired the shots that killed her.

Nuraybek, Aytkulova’s brother, said: “Only this vile government is to blame. “It has to change. What is happening is terrible. They are switching places in the government, while the common people are barely able to survive. And when they spoke, they were literally smashed and mixed with dirt, just like Nuraliya’s body. “

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

Addressing parliament earlier this week, Tokayev blamed Nazarbayev for creating an oligarchic state that enriched a small group and left millions of ordinary Kazakhs struggling to make ends meet. The president has reversed some of the fuel price hikes and pledged to raise wages and a social fund – paid for by the wealthy – to address grievances.

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

But as the internet recovery – which was shut down nationwide for much of the past week – revealed the scale of the bloodshed overseen by Tokayev, public sentiment turned against him, according to analysts and activists political action.

“Our people say: ‘They have turned off the internet, the blood is flowing. They turned on the internet, the evidence poured in,’ said Dana Zhanay, an activist participating in the Almaty protests.

“We have only one request: to change the ruling regime. People get tired of not having citizenship, because of the constant lack of respect for human rights,” she said.

However, Zhanay and other protesters told the Financial Times they had been joined by local Islamist groups and extremists with unclear motives. Groups of “young people in plain clothes” were handing out weapons, she said.

Then, she added, the disorder seemed to randomly flare up, with no clear goal in mind. “People have been killed and there are no police, no security services. Right in front of me, there were grandmothers and grandfathers lying on the ground. ”

The president alleged earlier in the week that Almaty was surrounded by “20,000 terrorists” and blamed activists and the liberal media for “collusion” with them.

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

“I was also sitting on my suitcase like it was 1937, waiting for them to come pick me up,” said Zhanay, referring to the repressive period of the Stalinist regime during the Soviet era.

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

Activists told the FT that continued atrocities are increasing public anger, with people resisting what they see as the only aesthetic government change since Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019.

Despite his detention, Abishev said he is determined to live “in the struggle further”. He only served three years in prison after the government designated the opposition movement he joined, Kazakhstan’s Democratic Choice, an extremist organization. The European Parliament called it a peace movement.

The organization is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former Kazakh banker and government official with ties to Nazarbayev, who came out of France and went into exile after the government confiscated his assets. and accused him of fraud. He has denied the allegations, saying they are politically motivated.

“What we have seen is not some senseless Russian uprising,” Ablyazov told the FT. “The frustration and hatred of the masses has led to what you are seeing. . . It will continue. ”

Meanwhile, activists say Kazakhstan’s security forces have gone door-to-door, interrogating people and checking their phones.

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

“It was just a terrible mistake. The kids and I will suffer for the rest of our lives,” she added. “He can be detained 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

The first protests broke out in the western city of Zhanaozen, spurred by the government’s decision to lift a cap on the price of liquefied petroleum gas, widely used to fuel cars in the region. . The protests were peaceful, with no arrests.

January 4

Protests spread to Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty. The focus changed to reflect social discontent stemming from inequality and poverty. The protesters also demanded the removal of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev from his position as head of the Security Council. The protests turned violent and eight policemen are believed to have been killed. Hundreds of people were arrested and the Internet was shut down.

January 5

Violence escalated and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a state of emergency. Tokayev accepted his government resignation and took over the Security Council. He called on the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of former Soviet Union nations, for help to quell the protests.

6 months 1

The Russian-led forces are tasked with “protecting important state and military facilities, and assisting Kazakh law enforcement in stabilizing the situation.”

January 7

Tokayev issued a “shoot to kill without warning” notice to security forces. Thousands of people were arrested, 26 protesters and 18 policemen were killed. Internet is partially restored.

January 8

An uneasy calm was restored. About 164 people were killed and thousands were detained during the unrest. Karim Massimov, an ally of Nazarbayev, was fired from his position as security chief and arrested for treason.

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