Kazakhstan activists recall path from protest to bloodshed

  • FILE - Riot police prepare to block protesters in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 5, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, File)

    FILE - Riot police prepare to block protesters in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 5, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Protesters lit by their smartphones as they gather in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 4, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Soon, city hall was ablaze, cars and buses were set on fire and gunshots rang out. Scores of people were killed and thousands arrested. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, File)

    FILE - Protesters lit by their smartphones as they gather in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 4, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Soon, city hall was ablaze, cars and buses were set on fire and gunshots rang out. Scores of people were killed and thousands arrested. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, File) Associated Press

  • Galym Ageleuov, a human rights activist and president of the Liberty Foundation speaks during his interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, Jan 12, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. 'A significant part of the people are those who came at the call of their hearts to express their attitude towards the authorities, because they are tired, because they do not feel like the state is providing them with social security,' Ageleuov said. '

    Galym Ageleuov, a human rights activist and president of the Liberty Foundation speaks during his interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, Jan 12, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. 'A significant part of the people are those who came at the call of their hearts to express their attitude towards the authorities, because they are tired, because they do not feel like the state is providing them with social security,' Ageleuov said. ' Associated Press

  • FILE - An armed riot police officer detains a protester during a security operation after clashes in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 8, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings.

    FILE - An armed riot police officer detains a protester during a security operation after clashes in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 8, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Associated Press

  • FILE - In this image taken from video released by Kazakhstan's Presidential Press Service, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks during his televised address to the nation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Jan. 7, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Tokayev has blamed the unrest on 'terrorists' who received foreign training and support. (Kazakhstan's Presidential Press Service via AP, File)

    FILE - In this image taken from video released by Kazakhstan's Presidential Press Service, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks during his televised address to the nation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Jan. 7, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Tokayev has blamed the unrest on 'terrorists' who received foreign training and support. (Kazakhstan's Presidential Press Service via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - A portrait of former Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev is seen at the city hall building after clashes in the central square blocked by security forces in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 10, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019 in favor of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, his hand-picked successor but has maintained behind-the-scenes influence.

    FILE - A portrait of former Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev is seen at the city hall building after clashes in the central square blocked by security forces in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 10, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019 in favor of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, his hand-picked successor but has maintained behind-the-scenes influence. Associated Press

  • FILE - People walk past cars, which were burned after clashes, on a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 7, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Soon, city hall was ablaze, vehicles were set on fire and gunshots rang out. Scores of people were killed and thousands were arrested.

    FILE - People walk past cars, which were burned after clashes, on a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 7, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Soon, city hall was ablaze, vehicles were set on fire and gunshots rang out. Scores of people were killed and thousands were arrested. Associated Press

  • A protester named Bezshan speaks in an interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Mass protests in Kazakhstan that began over New Year's weekend because of high fuel prices were peaceful at first, but then something changed. Bezshan said that on Jan. 5, armed men approached and asked young people in the crowd to help them storm a police station. 'They said they would hand out weapons,' he told the AP.

    A protester named Bezshan speaks in an interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Mass protests in Kazakhstan that began over New Year's weekend because of high fuel prices were peaceful at first, but then something changed. Bezshan said that on Jan. 5, armed men approached and asked young people in the crowd to help them storm a police station. 'They said they would hand out weapons,' he told the AP. Associated Press

  • FILE - Riot police block demonstrators during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 5, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, File)

    FILE - Riot police block demonstrators during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 5, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - The city hall building is seen through smoke in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 6, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. Soon, city hall was ablaze, cars and buses were set on fire and gunshots rang out. Scores of people were killed and thousands were arrested. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, File)

    FILE - The city hall building is seen through smoke in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 6, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. Soon, city hall was ablaze, cars and buses were set on fire and gunshots rang out. Scores of people were killed and thousands were arrested. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - In this photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian peacekeepers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization guard an area in Kazakhstan, Jan. 12, 2022. Clashes with police in the largest city of Almaty led to chaos on Jan. 5. Authorities blamed the violence on 'terrorists' backed by foreigners, but some analysts saw this as a pretext for bringing in the mostly Russian forces. '(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File

    FILE - In this photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian peacekeepers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization guard an area in Kazakhstan, Jan. 12, 2022. Clashes with police in the largest city of Almaty led to chaos on Jan. 5. Authorities blamed the violence on 'terrorists' backed by foreigners, but some analysts saw this as a pretext for bringing in the mostly Russian forces. '(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File Associated Press

  • A protester named Marat speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022. At demonstrations in the city, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Marat told AP that the authorities "haven't so far showed us a single terrorist,' citing only the highly publicized arrest of Vikram Ruzakhunov, a well-known jazz pianist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

    A protester named Marat speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022. At demonstrations in the city, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Marat told AP that the authorities "haven't so far showed us a single terrorist,' citing only the highly publicized arrest of Vikram Ruzakhunov, a well-known jazz pianist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Associated Press

  • FILE - Kyrgyz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov, right, speaks to the media in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Jan. 10, 2022. Ruzakhunov was arrested in Kazakhstan amid unrest there and authorities in Kyrgyzstan demanded his release. Ruzakhnunov appeared in a video on Kazakh television and said he had joined the protests, but he later told a Kyrgyz broadcaster that while in jail, his cellmates said the quickest way to get released was to confess to a false story, so that's what he did.

    FILE - Kyrgyz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov, right, speaks to the media in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Jan. 10, 2022. Ruzakhunov was arrested in Kazakhstan amid unrest there and authorities in Kyrgyzstan demanded his release. Ruzakhnunov appeared in a video on Kazakh television and said he had joined the protests, but he later told a Kyrgyz broadcaster that while in jail, his cellmates said the quickest way to get released was to confess to a false story, so that's what he did. Associated Press

  • A protester named Beken speaks during his interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Beken criticized security forces 'for shooting at their own people.' He said a Jan. 6 rally he attended featured peaceful protesters walking toward the military with a white flag.

    A protester named Beken speaks during his interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. Beken criticized security forces 'for shooting at their own people.' He said a Jan. 6 rally he attended featured peaceful protesters walking toward the military with a white flag. Associated Press

  • FILE - The body of a victim is seen in a damaged car in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. On Jan. 6, security forces killed dozens of protesters. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said he had given security forces shoot-to-kill orders to halt the violent unrest, saying: 'We intend to act with maximum severity regarding lawbreakers.' '(AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov, File

    FILE - The body of a victim is seen in a damaged car in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. On Jan. 6, security forces killed dozens of protesters. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said he had given security forces shoot-to-kill orders to halt the violent unrest, saying: 'We intend to act with maximum severity regarding lawbreakers.' '(AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov, File Associated Press

  • A protester named Daulet speaks during his interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. Daulet told AP that he believed the 'security forces deliberately painted the protesters as some kind of a fringe group prepared to riot.'

    A protester named Daulet speaks during his interview with The Associated Press in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. Daulet told AP that he believed the 'security forces deliberately painted the protesters as some kind of a fringe group prepared to riot.' Associated Press

  • FILE - Relatives of arrested after anti-government protests gather near a police station, hoping to learn their fate while a soldier patrols a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 14, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings.

    FILE - Relatives of arrested after anti-government protests gather near a police station, hoping to learn their fate while a soldier patrols a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 14, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. Associated Press

  • FILE - Municipal workers cover the burned city hall for repairs in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 13, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. Soon, city hall was ablaze, cars and buses were set on fire and gunshots rang out. Scores of people were killed and thousands were arrested.

    FILE - Municipal workers cover the burned city hall for repairs in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 13, 2022. At demonstrations in Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged the storming of police stations and government buildings. Soon, city hall was ablaze, cars and buses were set on fire and gunshots rang out. Scores of people were killed and thousands were arrested. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 1/15/2022 2:22 PM

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The mass protests in Kazakhstan began peacefully over the New Year's weekend, with marchers denouncing a sharp rise in fuel prices. They spread quickly from the western part of the Central Asian nation to more populous areas, eventually reaching its largest city of Almaty.

But something changed over the course of a week.

 

Groups of armed men appeared in Almaty, with some seen riding in cars without license plates or with their faces covered. Marchers at the peaceful protests say these men began urging them to storm government buildings, promising to give them guns.

Clashes with police soon broke out, and by the night of Jan. 5, Almaty was in chaos. City Hall was burning, as were cars and buses; stores were looted; and attempts were made to storm the presidential residence. Gunshots were heard in the streets, the internet was blacked out, and even the airport was briefly seized.


President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has blamed the unrest on 'terrorists' who received foreign training and support.

But nearly two weeks after the events that led to scores of deaths and about 16,000 arrests, the government has not presented any evidence to support its allegation of outside involvement.

It remains unclear whether these more violent actors were individuals taking advantage of the mayhem to loot and vandalize stores, or if they were part of organized groups with larger political motives.

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Protesters, however, say their rallies were somehow undermined, leading to the crackdown by security forces. Tokayev has said authorities didn't use force at peaceful demonstrations.

Although the protests began over the higher price of fuel, the scope and the agenda of the demonstrations expanded quickly. Large crowds rallied in major cities, venting their frustration with worsening living conditions and inequality under the authoritarian government that has maintained a tight grip on power for over three decades in the energy-rich nation of 19 million.

Much of that occurred under longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 in favor of Tokayev, his hand-picked successor, but has maintained behind-the-scenes influence. The slogan 'Shal ket!' - 'Old man go!' - was chanted at rallies.

'A significant part of the people are those who came at the call of their hearts to express their attitude towards the authorities, because they are tired, because they do not feel like the state is providing them with social security,' said human rights activist Galym Ageleuov, president of the Liberty Foundation.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Tokayev initially tried to calm the crowds by announcing a 180-day cap on fuel prices and removing Nazarbayev as head of the National Security Council, a move widely seen as an attempt to end the former leader's patronage while also consolidating power.

But the protests continued, and the violence escalated amid the peaceful rallies in Almaty.

A protester whose first name is Bezshan said that on Jan. 5, armed men approached and asked young people in the crowd to help them storm a police station. 'They said they would hand out weapons,' he told The Associated Press, recalling the incident more than a week later. AP has chosen not to publish the full names of protesters interviewed out of caution for their security.

Beken, another protester, said he also saw 'provocateurs' at the rally that day, urging an attack on police: 'We tried to stop them as much as we could, telling them: 'Everyone, stay put.' We don't need weapons, we came out to a peaceful rally,' he said.

On Jan. 6, security forces opened fire and killed dozens of protesters. At least 12 officers also were reported killed. The next day, Tokayev announced he had given security forces shoot-to-kill orders to halt the violent unrest, saying: 'We intend to act with maximum severity regarding lawbreakers.'

Almaty police spokeswoman Saltynat Azirbek called the Jan. 5 attack on the police department 'a proper battle.'

The attackers 'didn't put forward any demands,' she told reporters. "They deliberately came to destroy, to kill.'

She also insisted police were unarmed when working at unsanctioned demonstrations in Almaty, but she didn't clarify whether she meant the Jan. 6 rally.

Amid the bloodshed, Tokayev also called in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military alliance of six former Soviet states, which helped restore order.

Some saw the blaming of foreign instigators as a pretext for bringing in the mostly Russian forces.

'In order to invite Russian troops, you need a serious reason ... that is not an internal standoff with the people," political analyst Dimash Alzhayev said in an interview. "So naturally, (the authorities) needed to come up with terrorists.'

A protester named Marat told AP that the authorities "haven't so far showed us a single terrorist,' citing only the highly publicized arrest of Vikram Ruzakhunov, a well-known jazz pianist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

The musician appeared on Kazakh television after his arrest with large bruises on his face and said in the broadcast he had flown in and was promised money for participating in the protests.

Kyrgyz authorities protested Ruzakhunov's arrest and demanded that Kazakhstan release him. He was freed shortly afterward, and upon returning to Kyrgyzstan said his statement on Kazakh TV was false - he was visiting a friend in Almaty and got swept up while trying to leave the city.

Ruzakhnunov told a Kyrgyz broadcaster that while in jail, his cellmates said the quickest way to get released was to confess to a false story, so that's what he did.

Alzhanov, the analyst, noted that Kazakh state broadcasters amplified the government's message by repeatedly airing video of the turmoil.

"They continued broadcasting the visuals, so the government was interested in communicating them to a broad audience," he said, adding that the state of emergency that was declared provided a pretext to suppress the demonstrations with force.

A protester named Daulet told AP that he believed the 'security forces deliberately painted the protesters as some kind of a fringe group prepared to riot.'

Beken, the protester who described seeing what he called 'provocateurs,' criticized the security forces 'for shooting at their own people.' He said a Jan. 6 rally he attended featured protesters walking toward the military with a white flag.

'It is unfathomable. I can't understand it. How is this possible?' he said.

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