By Robin Paxton and Dmitry Solovyov
ALMATY (Reuters) - A Kazakh court ordered the arrest and detention of three opposition activists Saturday for holding an unauthorised rally, at which protesters condemned the recent election as fraudulent and demanded the release of jailed colleagues.
The three were arrested hours after about 300 people, opposed to long-serving President Nursultan Nazarbayev, gathered in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, calling for democratic change.
At the rally, Bolat Abilov and Amirzhan Kosanov, leaders of the opposition All-National Social Democratic Party, had demanded a transparent investigation into riots last month in the oil-producing region of Zhanaozen, the Central Asian state's deadliest violence in decades.
"After the rally, Abilov and Kosanov were brought to an administrative court in Almaty," an aide to Abilov told Reuters, requesting anonymity. "Abilov was given 18 days in custody and Kosanov 15 days for holding the unauthorised rally."
Amirbek Togusov, the head of the Social Democrats' Almaty headquarters, was put under arrest for 15 days, he said.
"We saw them off right to the threshold of the detention center. They appeared to be in good spirits and were confident in their actions," Abilov's aide said. The court could not be reached for comment because it had closed.
Abilov and Kosanov, addressing the rally, had demanded that their colleagues jailed on charges of inciting the oilmen's riots in Zhanaozen, western Kazakhstan, be freed.
It was the second peaceful protest since the January 15 parliamentary election gave Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party an overwhelming victory. After denouncing the election as rigged and faulty during an unauthorised rally on January 17, Abilov and Kosanov were fined and warned they could be arrested next time.
"WE WANT PEACEFUL CHANGE"
Saturday, the protesters had originally planned to gather at a monument to the 19th century Kazakh poet and philosopher Abai but city authorities, who denied permission for the rally, fenced off the square and unarmed police stood guard. The demonstrators gathered instead outside a nearby hotel.
"We want change, peaceful change and democratic change. We want to be reckoned with," Abilov, co-chairman of the All-National Social Democratic Party, told the crowd.
A solitary Kazakh flag waved among a crowd that was swollen by the presence of journalists and plain-clothes police. A succession of speakers took the megaphone over nearly two hours, before Muslim prayers ended the rally.
Nazarbayev, a former Soviet Communist Party boss, has ruled Kazakhstan since before independence with little tolerance for dissent. This month's election admitted three parties to parliament for the first time, but Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers said it lacked any genuine opposition presence.
"The election wasn't legitimate. We want them to hear us," said Ravilya, a pensioner who stood in the crowd in temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius. "There are more police than people. It's a good thing they're armed only with sticks," she said.
Nazarbayev, 71, is popular among most of Kazakhstan's 16.7 million population for bringing stability that has made the country's economy the most successful in ex-Soviet Central Asia.
But the riots in the oil town of Zhanaozen, which officials say killed 16, shook that image of stability. Police fired live rounds at crowds who set buildings ablaze in the town. Another person was killed in a nearby village the next day.
"We demand a just and large-scale investigation into the tragedy," Abilov said. "The president should promise that never again will weapons be used against citizens of Kazakhstan."
The prosecutor-general's office said this week that police generally acted within legal bounds when resorting to the use of weapons on December 16, but four senior officers are being prosecuted for using excessive force.
Opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov and newspaper editor Igor Vinyavsky have been detained for two months pending trial on charges of fomenting social hatred and trying to overthrow the constitutional order.
"We demand that authorities stop fighting against their opponents with such methods," Abilov said.
(Additional reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva; Editing by Tim Pearce)