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Reporter’s Notebook: Covering Kazakhstan’s Presidential Vote From Detention

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My working day in Almaty began at 7 a.m. on June 9 — election day in Kazakhstan.

My assignment was to go to several polling stations in the city to speak with voters and observers.

The atmosphere was almost the same in all the polling stations I managed to visit: dimly-lit halls, voters trickling in, and methodical election workers.

One young local election observer — having noticed a journalist in the site — started talking about the dangers of the Internet, a “harmful addiction.”

Among the voters in one polling station, I noticed prominent singer Roza Rymbaeva, who spoke to journalists after casting her ballot.

I asked her opinion about young Kazakhs who criticize the country’s political situation.

“Criticism is generally useful. We must listen to what people say,” Rymbaeva said.

News began to spread that an unsanctioned protest was taking place in the Astana Square in the center of Almaty. Calls for the rally appeared on social media on the eve of the election.

The square was full of uniformed and plainclothes police when I arrived. Numerous police vehicles were parked there, and among them were police buses with tinted windows that law enforcement often use to take away people they detain.

I bumped into a colleague, Daniyar Moldabekov, who works for the Vlast online publication.

I started taking some photos. Most of them were photos of the policemen, as there were no other people there at that moment.

A police officer approached us and asked why I was taking his photo.

“We are journalists on duty,” I said. “We have the right to take photos.”

The policeman asked for our IDs.

“It’s the third time today we have been asked to show our documents,” Moldabekov said as he showed his ID to the policeman. “You’re doing your job, we’re doing ours.”

“Just don’t publish my images on YouTube,” the policeman said as he left.

Peaceful Protest

Moldabekov and I decided to go to the other side of the street, where we noticed some movement among the police.

We saw a woman being brought near a prisoner-transport vehicle parked there. The woman insisted she was just a passerby with no intention of attending any rally. Police checked her documents and let her go.

Five minutes later, they brought an elderly man and put him inside the vehicle despite angry protests from the man, who said he was an ordinary person minding his own business.

Moments later, the man managed to get away, and police didn’t bother to chase after him.

Instead, they brought new detainees to the vehicle. Those who resisted were pushed inside.

Loud cries could be heard from two women who were literally dragged along by police officers.

Meanwhile, the crowd of protesters on the square grew larger. At the same time, the police got reinforcements, too: Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) officers joined them on the square.

Protesters started chanting: “Shame! Freedom! Police with the people!”

Officers continued to pull the most active from the crowd and put them in police vehicles. Some of those detained were resisting and shouting. Some managed to escape.

“What do you want? Do you want a second Zheltoksan?” an elderly man shouted to the police, referring to the violent 1986 antigovernment protests in Almaty.

The man showed the crowd a bloody finger that he said was injured during police attempts to arrest him.

A crowd was gathering near the monument of the World War II heroines Alia Moldagulova and Manshuk Mametova. Many were waving small Kazakh flags.

Police and SOBR officers began to move toward the crowd. Protesters sat down on the ground, holding each other’s hands. But the human chain didn’t help: police grabbed the protesters and dragged them by the legs.

Detained By Police

Suddenly, I found myself being dragged by three SOBR officers toward the police vehicle.

“Let me go, I’m a journalist,” I told them, but it made no impression on the officers. My colleagues tried to help me, but it didn’t help either.

Soon, I was locked up inside a cramped, dark cell inside the prisoner-transfer vehicle, along with other detainees.

“How did you end up here?” I asked one of them.

“We were detained. We staged a peaceful rally to express our protest against illegal elections.”

“Did you carry a poster?” I asked.

“Just a small flag,” said another protester, waving a small national flag. “We just stood there peacefully, we even sat on the ground, but they illegally pulled us out. We thought the police were with us.”

“Have you attended any rallies or demonstrations before?” I asked them.

“No, it’s the first time for all of us,” they responded.

Some 15 minutes later, the vehicle — siren blaring — took us to the Bostandyk district police station.

There were already dozens of people at the entrance of the police station who had been detained before us. They greeted us with applause.

At the entrance, I was told by police officers to hand over my mobile phone and backpack. The officers again ignored me when I told them I was a journalist.

There were many people inside the station, too. Officers divided us into small groups and sent us to different investigators.

Two other detainees and I were sent to an officer whose first name was Meruert. I forgot her last name, I didn’t have anything to write it down.

Among other questions, the officer asked if I was a member of the banned Kazakhstan’s Democratic Choice (DVK) movement, led by vocal government critic Mukhtar Ablyazov, who lives in self-imposed exile abroad.

“Do you know that DVK was declared an extremist group in Kazakhstan?” the officer asked. “Do you know anyone personally from the DVK movement?”

She also asked if I used a virtual private network (VPN).

I told the officer that I was not a member of any political party and that I didn’t know anyone from DVK personally.

“You understand that I have to ask these questions as part of my job?” she said.

Half an hour later, after the interview and paperwork were completed and my personal data was entered into the police database, a man in civilian clothes entered the room and told me I was free to leave.

At the entrance, another policeman told me: “Why didn’t you immediately say that you were a journalist? I stood there nearby, you should have come to me and told me your position and the name of your publication. You would have been immediately released.”

“How could I know I needed to go to you, precisely?” I asked. “Besides, I said many times that I was a journalist and that I was detained illegally.”

“I apologize,” the police officer said and I finally left the station.

According to the Interior Ministry, “about 500 people” were detained in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.

There are some reports in Kazakhstan that administrative hearings of the detainees were being held at police stations.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

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