Today neither social nor mainstream media in Kazakhstan were reporting on orderly presidential elections. Instead, the media reports, tweets, and Facebook posts were about protests during the election – meant to usher in Kazakhstan’s new president and confirm former president Nursultan Nazarbaev’s legacy – noting “hundreds” detained, a British journalist being hauled into an Almaty police station, and riot police out in full gear.
Mass detention of peaceful protesters in Kazakhstan is nothing new. The actions police take to thwart and break up peaceful yet unsanctioned assemblies, including hauling protesters into riot police vans, are routine and have been well-documented over the years.
But it is not every day that peaceful protests coincide with Kazakhstan’s most notable election in recent years – an event that has drawn international observers and significant media attention to the country. Nor do police usually detain foreign journalists and rights workers when rounding up protesters.
Yet today in Almaty, the capital, police briefly detained Marius Fossum, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s regional representative, who was monitoring protests. They also detained Chris Rickleton, an international journalist, along with a cameraman, seizing Rickleton’s accreditation card and causing him to sustain a black eye in the process. Only after the foreign ministry intervened were he and the cameraman released.
Several other journalists and monitors were detained while covering today’s events, including local journalists from Radio Azattyk and Vlast.kz, and a representative of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, a local human rights group. After some hours, they too were released.
Qasym-Jomart Tokaev, Nazarbaev’s handpicked successor and favorite to win the vote, told journalists today that “we will be tolerant of people who voice different views. We will engage in dialogue with all those who support the government, and with those who are against the government.”
Given today’s events, someone should point out the obvious: as long as police in Kazakhstan deny people the right to peacefully protest and express their critical views, Tokaev’s words will ring hollow.
Kazakh authorities should urgently take meaningful action to permit and protect the right of protesters to peacefully express opinions without fear of harassment, detention, and abuse.