ALMATY, Kazakhstan: Hundreds rallied in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, on Sunday to commemorate the victims of bloody clashes during anti-government protests last month, defying an official ban on the demonstration.
Central Asia’s richest country descended into violence in early January when peaceful protests over a fuel price hike unravelled into bloody clashes and looting.
More than 200 died and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called in troops from a Russia-led security bloc to re-establish control.
Tokayev on Sunday also commemorated the victims, his press secretary Berik Uali said in a Facebook post that showed the head of state praying in a mosque.
Demonstrators, meanwhile, gathered in Almaty’s Republic Square to pray for those who died in the bloodshed.
Some called for the resignation of Tokayev, who claimed the riots were the work of hired bandits and "terrorists" with international links, despite signs of a leadership struggle.
Protesters also demanded the release of hundreds of citizens jailed during the violence on charges including terrorism and fomenting unrest, and to an end to torture in the country’s jails.
Others called for the arrest of Tokayev’s long-ruling predecessor and mentor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who relinquished his remaining political posts last month.
"I am personally waiting for elections, so that the people can choose their own ruler," said Nurkhasym Bimanov, a pensioner attending the memorial.
"We don’t believe this government. The whole Kazakh people does not believe this government!"
Aiman Ispolova, part of a group of women singing patriotic songs and laying flowers at the square, said she had come to demand justice for her son’s friend, who was shot on January 6 while driving through the city.
"He was 28. His parents are 60 years old. He was their provider. His mother is in deep mourning. She cannot leave her bed. And where is Tokayev, who gave the shoot-to-kill order?"
Gulshara Belgibayeva, a 57-year-old postal worker, said she was seeking the release from jail of a young man who was shot during the violence and later arrested.
Riot police had forcibly transferred him from hospital to a jail cell, Belgibayeva said.
Police did not immediately move to break up the demonstration, as often happens in Kazakhstan, which imposes strong restrictions on freedom of assembly.
The foreign ministry this month pledged that "all complaints of illegal detention and possible ill-treatment of detainees will be thoroughly investigated".
Tokayev on Sunday sent his "deepest condolences" to the families and friends of those who died in the unrest.
"The state will not leave you alone in your pain," he said in a post on the presidency’s website Sunday, promising them "material assistance."
Since the riots Tokayev has consolidated his power at the expense of the Nazarbayev clan.
Nazarbayev, 81, handpicked Tokayev to replace him in 2019 after nearly three decades in power but was viewed as wielding ultimate power prior to the crisis, a situation that fuelled speculation of tensions between the pair.
Karim Masimov, a long-time Nazarbayev ally who served as security chief when the protests began, has been arrested on charges of plotting a coup.
Nazarbayev made his first public appearance of the year in a video address that was published on January 18 -- nearly two weeks after the violence peaked -- and which appeared to have been heavily edited.
He described himself as a "pensioner" and said he had willingly ceded his remaining positions to his protege.
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