Kazakh police detained dozens of opposition supporters who staged public protests against the government of the Central Asian nation on Saturday.
Demonstrations have intensified since the resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev last March after almost three decades in power. Nazarbayev nominated close ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as successor, ensuring his victory in a subsequent snap election.
Tokayev has promised to adopt a more liberal approach towards dissent and ease the restrictions on protests and the creation of political parties. But some opposition activists dismissed the proposed reforms as cosmetic.
Protesters who gathered in the capital Nur-Sultan on Saturday held banners that read “Why are people poor in rich Kazakhstan?” and demanded the release of political prisoners in the country, which has significant oil resources.
Opposition supporters in Almaty, the country’s largest city, gathered in greater numbers to demonstrate in a central square, voicing similar demands.
One of two separate protest groups in Almaty was led by activists trying to establish a new opposition party who complained the authorities had disrupted their founding congress by detaining and harassing would-be delegates.
The group’s leader, journalist Zhanbolat Mamay, was detained late on Friday and charged with calling for a public rally not sanctioned by the government – which is illegal in the former Soviet republic of 19 million people.
Hundreds of policemen arrived on the scene, easily outnumbering the few dozen activists, and swiftly dispersed the rally.
Mamay and his supporters will press ahead with plans to establish the Democratic Party ahead of next year’s parliamentary election, his wife Inga Imanbay told the rally before police led her away along with other protesters.
Hours later, supporters of another government critic, exiled former banker and politician Mukhtar Ablyazov, attempted to hold a demonstration at the same location.
The government has accused Ablyazov of embezzling billions of dollars from a local bank after having its chief executive murdered – allegations he denies.
Police made dozens more arrests at the second protest, bringing the total number of people detained to around 100. At least 18 people were detained at a rally in Nur-Sultan.