Kazakhstan police officers detain a protester during an opposition rally in Almaty, September 21, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

Since coming to power in June, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev has claimed a desire to accelerate political reforms and improve human rights in the country. But the mass detention of peaceful protesters over the weekend and other recent large-scale arrests undermine Tokaev’s expressed commitment to reform.

On September 21, authorities appeared to use excessive force to detain about 100 people at a rally by the banned opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK); 15 were fined or held in custody. One man was so manhandled by the police that his prosthetic leg came off when they carried him into a police van.

In June, Tokaev promised to reform the country’s protest law, which requires protesters to obtain prior permission from local authorities, requests that are often denied. Riot police regularly round up those participating in unsanctioned demonstrations ­ as was the case in June, when at least 4,000 people protesting the presidential election were detained and hundreds placed under administrative arrest. Tokaev reiterated his support for reform during his first national address in September.

Tokaev, whose predecessor Nursultan Nazarbaev ruled the country for 30 years, is right to call for change. But despite his reformist message, the reality in Kazakhstan remains largely the same.

Authorities did not detain anyone who participated in an August march for constitutional reform, nor were arrests made in protests against growing Chinese investment in Kazakhstan earlier this month. But in the weeks since, at least 36 people who participated in those anti-China protests and other forms of civic action have been placed in administrative custody or fined.

Human rights groups have proposed concrete changes to Kazakhstan’s protest law that would protect the right to peaceful assembly, but say the government has not acted on them.

If Tokaev truly wants to break with Kazakhstan’s past rights record, he should seek to reform the law on protests and end the arrest and detention of peaceful protesters. Grand pronouncements and rhetoric are not enough.