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Kazakhstan jails Nazarbayev critics after rare protest


Kazakhstan handed jail terms of more than two weeks to three opposition leaders after they organised an unusually large protest against strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Around 1,000 people shouted angry slogans against the Kazakh leader on a square in the centre of the largest city Almaty earlier in the day, in a rare show of popular dissent in Kazakhstan's tightly-controlled society.

The demonstration had not been sanctioned by the authorities and police erected barricades around the square while doing nothing to impede the protest from taking place on its fringes.

The protest ended peacefully but key figures from the Azat (Freedom) opposition party were subsequently summoned to a police station, taken to court and given administrative jail sentences, party spokesman Aidos Amanbayev told AFP.

The Almaty district court handed the co-chairman of Azat, Bolat Abilov, 18 days in jail while the party's general secretary Amirzhan Kosanov and its Almaty head Amirbek Togusov were sentenced to 15 days.

They were sentenced on charges of violating the law on holding protests. The other Azat co-chairman Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a former top regime official who defected to the opposition, was fined just over $200, he said.

At the protest, leaders and top activists from the anti-Nazarbayev opposition, which won no seats in this month's parliamentary elections, took turns to denounce the leadership of the energy-rich state.

"Return the country's riches to the people!" said the co-chairman of the Azat (Freedom) opposition party Bolat Abilov. "We will stage another meeting in February. Even more of us will come. Let's stop being scared."

Leading opposition journalist Gulzhan Yergaliyeva proclaimed: "The people are stronger than the regime. We must show our strength!"

"Freedom!" chanted the demonstrators. "Nazarbayev go!" The next protest is to be hold on February 25, organisers said.

The demonstration -- originally called to protest against fraud in parliamentary elections -- had already been given an additional impulse by the arrest and jailing of three prominent opposition figures over the last few days.

Vzglyad newspaper editor Igor Vinyavsky, the leader of the unregistered Alga opposition party Vladimir Kozlov and activist Serik Sapargali have all been remanded in custody for two months after their arrest earlier this week.

The opposition has said their arrest is part of a crackdown by the regime in response to an unusual outbreak of political turbulence in what is seen as Central Asia's most stable state and a magnet for foreign investors.

Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party won almost 81 percent of the vote in the January 15 polls which international observers said failed to meet "fundamental principles of democratic elections."

That controversy came just one month after over a dozen people were killed in clashes between striking oil workers and police in the Caspian Sea city of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan's worst bloodshed since the fall of the Soviet Union.

A draft resolution discussed at the protest meeting calls for the release of the three opposition prisoners, an "objective investigation" into the events in Zhanaozen and the annulment of the "falsified" election results.

Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since before the Soviet Union's collapse, last year appointed former British prime minister Tony Blair to advise the country on attracting more foreign investment.

While Nazarbayev has been hailed by some as a shining example of modern leadership in the Islamic world, critics have long criticised his regime for seeking economic prosperity and stability at the expense of human rights.