NUR-SULTAN — Kazakh activists have been jailed across the Central Asian country in what rights activists say is a crackdown on civil liberties and free speech ahead of parliamentary elections this weekend.
A court in the capital, Nur-Sultan, on January 6, sentenced Ghadilbek Serikbaev, who was expected to monitor the elections, to 15 days in jail just hours after he was detained by police and charged with calling for illegal protests.
The charge against Serikbaev stemmed from his January 2 Facebook post, in which he called on rights activists and voters to hold a gathering in downtown Nur-Sultan on January 10, election day.
Serikbaev pleaded not guilty and rejected the charge as politically motivated.
Serikbaev was detained at a medical clinic where he was trying to get tested for the coronavirus, a requirement for election observers.
Kazakh rights defenders have accused the government of pressuring independent observers and activists before the elections, with dozens of activists being detained in recent weeks.
Three other activists in the northwestern city of Aqtobe –Aitzhan Temirghaziev, Berikzhan Toqin, and Asylkhan Zhaubatyrov — also were sentenced on January 6 to seven days in jail.
The trio was detained on January 4 while distributing leaflets calling for local residents to hold a protest near the central sports stadium in the city on January 10.
They were found guilty of “violating regulations for public events,” a charge they rejected.
Another Kazakh activist, Nurzhan Mukhammedov, was detained in the southern city of Shymkent and charged with “taking part in the activities of a banned group.”
The upcoming polls for parliament’s lower chamber, the Mazhilis, will be the first parliamentary elections since President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev succeeded Nursultan Nazarbaev, who resigned in March 2019 after nearly three decades in power.
Nazarbaev still maintains key positions of influence, which includes heading the country’s powerful Security Council and the ruling Nur Otan party. He also enjoys almost limitless powers and immunity as elbasy — leader of the nation.
The vote will decide 98 of 107 seats in the Mazhilis. Nine other seats will be separately elected by the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan — a political body representing dozens of ethnic groups in the Central Asian nation.
Along with the ruling Nur-Otan party, four other political parties loyal to the government will take part in the elections.
The only officially registered political party that calls itself oppositionist, the All-National Social Democratic Party, is boycotting the elections.
Since 2019, several political groups and parties have tried to register in order to be eligible to take part in the poll, but Kazakh authorities have rejected all of their applications.
None of the elections in Kazakhstan since it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been considered by Western observers as fair and free.