Hundreds more arrested as Kazakhs protest 'rigged vote'

Police on high alert in Almaty after 200 additional people arrested amid protests against vote to elect new president.

    At least 700 people have been arrested since Sunday in protests against Kazakhstan's presidential election [Ruslan Pryanikov/AFP]
    At least 700 people have been arrested since Sunday in protests against Kazakhstan's presidential election [Ruslan Pryanikov/AFP]

    Police in Kazakhstan have arrested 200 more people, the interior ministry said on Tuesday, amid protests against what many see as a rigged presidential election

    The 200 people arrested in the country's biggest city, Almaty, on Monday were in addition to 500 others who were held a day earlier over protests against a snap vote that saw a landslide victory for Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the hand-picked successor of longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

    Tokayev took nearly 71 percent of Sunday's vote with all ballots counted, according to the election commission, while Amirzhan Kosanov, the 66-year-old career diplomat's closest rival, took a mere 16.2 percent vote. 

    Sunday's vote prompted large protests in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and Almaty, with demonstrators calling for a boycott of the election. Such gatherings are rare in the tightly controlled, oil-rich country and illegal unless explicitly approved by the government. 

    On Tuesday, a heavy police presence was visible on the streets of Almaty, with several National Guard personnel carrier trucks parked near the focal spot of the previous two days of rallies.

    Authorities have blamed the protests on the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) party. 

    But the latest rally on Monday night appeared to have little to do with the DVK and was more likely triggered instead by the arrest earlier that day of Rinat Zaitov, a poet and musician who blasted the election as rigged and said he would start a political movement of his own.

    'Wave of popular anger'

    About 200 of Zaitov's supporters, some of whom broadcast the event online, gathered outside police headquarters and demanded his release.

    The protest continued for several hours until Zaitov appeared in front of the crowd saying he was free and heading home.

    The crowd began an impromptu victory march through the night, chanting "Oyan Kazakh" (Wake up Kazakh) and other slogans. Some walked and others drove slowly sounding the horns of their cars until police blocked their way and arrested a number of people.

    Police in black uniforms and balaclavas could be seen slamming people to the ground, according to the Reuters news agency.

    "The overnight crackdown has put the country on the brink of direct conflict between police and the people," political activist Mukhtar Taizhan wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

    "One cracked skull, first blood - and you will not be able to stop a justified wave of popular anger." 

    Meanwhile, news website Tengrinews.kz said police beat up one of its reporters at the site.

    Footage appears to show the journalist, Shokan Alkhabayev, with a bruise on his face and a cut on his body after he said he was struck and kicked by officers while filming a police operation targeting protesters in Almaty. 

    A number of journalists, including two from AFP news agency, were briefly held on Sunday before being released. 

    Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
    Career diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is Kazakhstan's second president since it gained independence [File: Muhktar Kholdorbekov/Reuters]

    Sunday's election was Kazakhstan's first not to include Nazarbayev since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

    The former leader's shock resignation in March was initially hailed as a commitment to ensuring an orderly transition of power in a region where leaders tend to rule until death.

    However, the continued crackdown on the opposition, allegations of ballot box stuffing and other election tampering has since darkened the view of Kazakhstan's election. 

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    In his role as life-long chair of Kazakhstan's security council, Nazarbayev is believed to still largely be calling the shots in the country and protesters have alleged that career diplomat Tokayev's victory was an all-but-assured way of keeping power in the hands of a Nazarbayev ally. 

    The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent more than 300 observers to monitor the election, said an "honest count could not be guaranteed."

    The group described the poll as showing "a lack of respect for fundamental rights" and said there were "widespread irregularities". 

    Al Jazeera's Robin Forestier-Walker reported having seen videos that appeared to show ballot stuffing and results being altered at some polling stations. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies