Some 300 opposition activists staged a rare rally in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Saturday to protest recent elections and the violent suppression of a group of oil workers. Hours later, speakers at the rally handed two-week jail sentences for holding the unsanctioned gathering.
The jailings broadened the ranks of opposition figures languishing behind bars in the authoritarian former Soviet Central Asian nation and further undermined its past assurances that it intends to actively pursue democratic development.
Nonetheless, the West has been largely mute in its criticism of Kazakhstan, a vast, oil- and gas-rich nation bordering Russia and China that is viewed as a reliable energy and security partner. The country is key to the northern delivery route for supplies headed to the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan.
Police on Saturday cordoned off the area where protesters hoped to gather, forcing the crowd to move to a nearby spot in Almaty overlooked by a soaring Soviet-era hotel. Bulat Abilov, co-chairman of the All-National Social Democratic Party, or OSDP, pledged such rallies would be held once a month.
An Almaty court later sentenced Abilov and OSDP deputy chairman Amirzhan Kosanov to 15 and 18 days in jail, respectively.
"What we are doing is telling the country the truth, we are fighting for honest elections," Kosanov told The Associated Press by telephone. "This punishment will not change our position."
Before the meeting ended, the crowd prayed in memory of the at least 16 people killed last month in the western oil town of Zhanaozen during clashes between police and striking laborers. Authorities are prosecuting several police officers for exceeding their authority by opening fire on rampaging protesters.
At the end of the rally, Abilov led the crowd in chanting, "We are sick of this outrage!"
The ruling Nur Otan party gained control of 83 of the parliament's 107 seats in elections this month that international observers said failed to meet democratic standards. OSDP, the only genuinely robust opposition force taking part, garnered less than 2 percent of the ballot, falling far short of the 7 percent needed to win seats.
Earlier this week, police arrested the leader of the unregistered Alga party, Vladimir Kozlov, for inciting social unrest in Zhanaozen. The editor of independent newspaper Vzglyad, Igor Sinyavsky, was also jailed and faces charges of "calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order."
An Almaty court on Friday ordered the men to be remanded in custody for two months.
Regional Alga representative Aizhangul Amirova, who worked closely with the Zhanaozen strikers, was also arrested by security services in early January.