A lone protester in Kazakhstan used International Woman’s Day on March 8 to draw attention to the fate of a group of children who were detained along with their mothers in Astana last week.
Schoolteacher Yelena Akhmetova staged her one-woman protest in downtown Almaty with a banner reading: “Our children are not criminals.”
She was remonstrating against heavy-handed police actions at a housing protest in Astana on March 6, when police rounded up a group of children while detaining their mothers for protesting over housing rights. Video from Radio Azattyk showed shocking scenes of screaming children being herded into police buses as their mothers were detained under strict laws regulating the right to public assembly in Kazakhstan. All were later released without charge.
Akhmetova said she was protesting “against all those who use force against our children.”
“We are not criminals, and this [country] is not a prison,” she added, defending her right to protest. An Almaty city hall official who was present warned her that she was breaking the law on public assembly, but Akhmetova suggested that the police watching her would do better to tackle issues such as bribe-taking in schools than infringing the rights of citizens to freedom of expression.
Another woman who had planned to protest, Dilnar Insenova, was arrested beforehand and immediately tried under public assembly legislation (which requires protesters to obtain official permission from the authorities by applying 10 days in advance of their action). Insenova, a campaigner on housing issues, was fined approximately $500 for her calls to protest.
Astana is always sensitive to public protest and has become even more so since the overthrow of the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, last month amid popular demonstrations. The authorities in Kazakhstan cracked down on a series of protests sparked by last month’s devaluation of the tenge, arresting 35 people over a single weekend on February 15-16.
On March 3 activist Makhambet Abzhan was detained at the Russian embassy in Astana for protesting against Russian policy in Crimea, and two activists were arrested at the embassy on February 28 protesting against statements made by Russian nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky about Kazakhstan.
In other recent cases of heavy-handed crackdowns on critics, several bloggers critical of the Almaty mayor were thrown in jail in February on hooliganism charges.