MOSCOW - Police in Kazakhstan arrested nearly 4,000 people during protests before and after a June 9 presidential election, and 700 were detained for several days, the country's interior minister reported Tuesday.
Protests took place in Kazakhstan on election day and continued for several days over what government critics saw as an orchestrated handover of power in the Central Asian nation. Police dispersed the demonstrations with force.
Official arrest figures put the number of protesters held at less than 1,000 before Interior Minister Erlan Turgumbayev gave the updated tally in comments carried by Kazakh media. At least nine journalists were among those arrested.
An ally of Kazakhstan's first and only president won the election with more than 70 percent of the vote. President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned in March after holding office for more than 25 years,
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was speaker of the upper house of Kazakhstan's parliament before he became acting president following the surprise resignation.
Pyotr Trotsenko, 33, a reporter for the Kazakh-language service of Radio Free Europe, was one of the journalists detained at the election day rallies in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and the city of Almaty.
Police said they did not know the nine were journalists and insisted none had media identification. Trotsenko told a different story.
He said officers took hold of his arms when he was in the middle of the crowd and he didn't have the chance to take the press ID out of his pocket.
“I tried to explain to them that I am a journalist and have a professional camera on me,” Trotsenko told The Associated Press. “It was obvious that I was not just hanging around and taking pictures for fun.”
Trotsenko said he spent two hours at a police station, where he was questioned about his political views and then allowed to leave without explanation.
As he photographed police arresting more protesters the next day, “one of the officers said that if I won't leave the square, he would strangle me,” he said.
Freelance journalist Assem Zhapisheva, 30, said police officers tried to intimidate her, too, asking her at an overcrowded detention center “why I'm writing bad things about Kazakhstan.”
The shows of public discontent related to the election were rare events for Kazakhstan, where opposition is restricted.
Information Minister Dauren Abayev, one of the few officials to have commented on the demonstrations, over the weekend said the anti-government protests show citizens “cannot be indifferent to the election results.”
Abayev defended the large number of arrests, saying protesters were rounded up so the election could “be held in a calm environment.”