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Families await news of thousands in Kazakhstan police custody after protests

With around 12,000 people arrested after anti-government protests in Kazakhstan last week, friends and relatives of those held by police waited outside a prison on Wednesday, hoping to know their fate.

Some even went to mortuaries to see if a loved one was among the dozens of people killed in the unprecedented violence in the Central Asian country.

Authorities have refused to allow relatives or lawyers to see the detainees, giving little information about them, according to human rights activists.

The protests began on January 2 in western Kazakhstan over a sharp rise in fuel prices and have spread across the country, apparently reflecting wider discontent with the government, which said the state of emergency for the whole country and called on a Russian-led army alliance to send troops to help restore order.

Another 1,678 people have been arrested in the past 24 hours in Almaty, the largest city hardest hit by the unrest, and more than 300 criminal investigations have been opened.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed the unrest on foreign-backed “terrorists”, but provided no evidence and ordered shooting to kill the security forces to quell the unrest.

On Wednesday, a bullet-pierced coffee shop window is seen in Almaty. (The Associated Press)

Outside a branch of the Home Affairs Department that housed a large detention center, a man who gave his name only as Renat said he had been waiting for almost a week to see or get information about a close friend, Zhandos Nakipovich. He said that Nakipovich, whom he described as “a brother” to him, was arrested on January 4 during a peaceful protest.

“He was held in a police station first, then they told us he was in the internal affairs department,” Renat told The Associated Press. “Since January 6, we are here and we don’t know if he is alive or not.”

Military checkpoints prevented anyone from approaching the building.

“Neither lawyers nor relatives – no one is allowed in. Lawyers must be present during the interrogation, but as you can see, no one can pass,” said Galym Ageleuov, head of the rights group. humans Liberty, who was waiting at the barricade.

“The checkpoint is blocking access for lawyers and relatives to see what’s going on. We don’t even have the list of detainees,” Ageleuov said.

More than a dozen men and women dressed in dark winter clothes gathered outside one of Almaty’s morgues, some of them waiting to collect the bodies of loved ones killed in the unrest. Gathered in small groups, they stood at the door of the establishment, chatting quietly with each other but refusing to speak to a reporter.

Families await news of thousands in Kazakhstan police custody after protests
A Kazakh soldier observes the surroundings on Wednesday from an armored vehicle in front of the headquarters of the municipal administration, which was set on fire during recent demonstrations sparked by the increase in the price of fuel, in Almaty. (Pavel Mikheyev / Reuters)

Although the official death toll was announced at 164, Tokayev said hundreds of civilians and security forces were killed and injured.

Life in Almaty has started to return to normal after days of unrest which saw cars and buses set on fire, government buildings stormed and set on fire, the airport seized and the roar of gunfire resounding. The unrest had largely ended last weekend.

Authorities in the energy-rich country of 19 million people have sought to allay anger against the government by capping fuel prices for 180 days. The Cabinet resigned and the longtime former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev was ousted from his influential post as head of the National Security Council. Nazarbayev had resigned as president in 2019 after nearly three decades in power, but retained his influence within the security forces.

The military alliance Tokayev asked for help, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, sent more than 2,000 troops to Kazakhstan. Tokayev said they would start withdrawing on Thursday.