ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Police in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, have detained at least a dozen activists ahead of planned protests by two opposition groups in the oil-rich Central Asian country on February 22.
The activists from the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan shouted 'Freedom!' as police detained them not far from a central square where supporters of the party are planning to hold an unsanctioned rally amid a heavy police presence in and around the square.
Kazakhstan has long been criticized for its restrictive laws regulating demonstrations. President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev pledged in 2019 to carry out reforms after succeeding Nursultan Nazarbaev, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
On the eve of the rally, Zhanbolat Mamai, a leading figure in the Democratic Party, was arrested and sentenced to three days in administrative detention.
Maimai, a filmmaker, told the AFP news agency on February 21 that 'at least ten' members of the group had received sentences of up to five days in detention earlier this week.
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In 2017, Maimai was convicted on what he and supporters say were trumped-up money-laundering charges and handed a three-year suspended sentence that is still in force.
Another opposition movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), is also planning to hold a rally in Almaty as well as other Kazakh cities on February 22.
The DVK was banned by a Kazakh court in 2018 as extremist. On February 20, the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's office called on citizens not to take part in what it called the 'illegal' rallies planned by the DVK.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Bolat Dembaev's statement announced via state-run media on February 20 warned citizens that law enforcement officers will 'undertake strict measures to prevent illegal rallies,' adding that participants in 'illegal protests' may face administrative and criminal charges.
'Any actions by any person to organize or take part in an unsanctioned public event will be suppressed... The Prosecutor-General's office calls on the citizens to strictly follow laws and to stay away from provocations and participation in illegal public activities,' the statement said.
Dozens of DVK supporters and other activists across Kazakhstan had been fined or sentenced to jail terms ranging from 5 to 15 days ahead of the planned rallies on charges of organizing or taking part in earlier unsanctioned demonstrations.
The DVK, led by Mukhtar Ablyazov who has been living in self-imposed exile in Europe for more than a decade, thanked the state prosecutor for giving the group 'an advert' ahead of the planned demonstrations.
With reporting by AFP
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