June 12, 2019 / 7:34 AM / 2 months ago

Scores more Kazakh protesters arrested despite dialogue call

NUR-SULTAN/ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakh police rounded up about 150 people on Wednesday as protests continued against President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev despite his call for dialogue after a disputed election.

Law enforcement officers detain a man during an opposition rally held by critics of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who protest over his election in Almaty, Kazakhstan June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev

Hundreds-strong demonstrations, otherwise rare in the tightly controlled oil-exporting country, have repeatedly broken out since the election last Sunday in which career diplomat Tokayev won 71 percent of the vote and secured a five-year term.

Police made most of the detentions as people approached a cordoned-off square, in the centre of Almaty, the Central Asian nation’s biggest city, where activists planned to rally on the day of Tokayev’s swearing-in, according to a Reuters witness.

A handful who managed to get into the square were also quickly led away after shouting “Kazakhstan forward!” and insulting security officers.

Car drivers expressed solidarity by slowing down and honking their horns. Many offices, shops and restaurants closed early.

Critics called the weekend vote rigged as 66-year-old Tokayev, nominated for the post by his veteran predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, faced little meaningful competition and the integrity of ballot counting was questioned.

Nazarbayev, 78, who resigned in March after running the former Soviet republic of 18 million for almost three decades, retains sweeping powers as Yelbasy, or national leader, and critics accuse him of installing a puppet.

HUNDREDS ARRESTED

Police also detained about 700 people on Sunday and Monday, although it was unclear how many remained in custody.

At his swearing-in, Tokayev did not mention the protests - the biggest in years - but spoke in a conciliatory tone.

“Our citizens are really concerned with the development of dialogue between the authorities and the society,” he said after taking an oath at the Independence Palace in the capital Nur-Sultan. Any talks “must be based on the recognition of the plurality of opinions”, he added.

Tokayev said he would set up a special national council open, among others, to young activists. That was a reference to some opponents who staged small but creative protests in the run-up to the vote such as standing at a square with an empty banner - and were still detained for that.

The council will first convene in August, Tokayev said.

The president’s office said he had ordered state prosecutors to make sure passersby detained around protest sites were freed. One video on social media showed police detain a cyclist who said he was going home with groceries.

Authorities say the election was legitimate and blame the protests on Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), a movement led by fugitive former banker and minister Mukhtar Ablyazov.

Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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