(Berlin) – Law enforcement officers aggressively broke up efforts to hold planned peaceful protests across Kazakhstan on May 21, 2016, detaining hundreds of people, sometimes using force, Human Rights Watch said today. Police also rounded up journalists and human rights activists who attempted to monitor and report on the unfolding events.

“It’s outrageous that hundreds of people were detained for trying to express their views peacefully, and others were picked up just for monitoring or reporting on peaceful protests,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakh authorities should immediately release anyone in detention, including people jailed last week for voicing a desire to protest before the rallies took place. They should also hold to account officers who overstepped their duties in policing the protests.”

Law enforcement officers, including masked riot police, detained hundreds of people on May 21 as they tried to peacefully protest land reform proposals. They focused in particular on amendments to the land code that would increase to 25 years the length of time foreigners and foreign investors could lease farmland in Kazakhstan.

Detentions took place in multiple cities across Kazakhstan, with the majority of protesters detained in Almaty, the largest city, and Astana, the capital. Observers, including those who tried to visit police stations, estimate that more than 300 people were detained in Almaty, and more than 200 in Astana. Dozens of others were rounded up in other cities, including Uralsk, Atyrau, and Pavlodar, according to media reports.

Local media reported police officers had surrounded Republic Square in Almaty and the square near Baiterek monument in Astana before the May 21 protests. Activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that when they arrived at protest sites, authorities had already cordoned off the squares, preventing protesters from gathering. Reports on Facebook began to emerge early on May 21 that police had begun to detain activists ahead of the protests.

In Almaty, police detained Amangeldy Shormanbaev, a human rights defender with the International Legal Initiative Foundation, who on May 20 posted on Facebook that he and other colleagues would be monitoring developments and were available to provide legal assistance. Shormanbaev said that police detained him as he arrived at his office just after 9 a.m. but did not explain the reason for his arrest. He was taken to the Almalin police station and held for more than five hours.

Although a lawyer and human rights defenders tried to enter the police station to meet with Shormanbaev, they were not allowed in. He was released midafternoon without charge.

In Astana, Zauresh Battalova, head of the Development Fund for Parliamentarism and a member of the land reform commission set up by President Nursultan Nazarbaev in early May, was detained at the square near Baiterek monument about 11.30 a.m. She was held in detention for approximately three hours before being released without charge.

Zhanna Baitelova, a civil society activist who monitored the protest in Almaty, and who was also temporarily detained, told Human Rights Watch that when she arrived at Republic Square it had already been cordoned off, and there were many police in the area. Because people could not gather on the square, protesters grouped together on the corner of neighboring cross streets, she said. Baitelova estimated approximately 200 people were lined up along the sidewalks.

At about 11 a.m., helmeted police officers, armed with batons, and masked riot police began detaining people. Baitelova said she saw at least three people being pulled away, carried by four officers, and thrown into buses. As protesters continued to move along Almaty’s central street, police rounded more people up. Video shot by journalists shows riot and other police chasing protesters, including following them onto buses.

Marzhan Aspandiarova, a civil society activist, told Human Rights Watch that police detained her at midday in central Almaty. Aspandiarova said that she and others sang the Kazakh national anthem, and people in the crowd spoke out against the sale of land to foreigners. Police then began to detain protesters onto buses. Aspandiarova said that approximately 80 other people were brought to the Alatau police station, where she was held for the rest of the day.

In an administrative hearing that took place overnight on May 21, she and Risbek Sarsenbai, editor-in-chief of Zhas-Alash newspaper, who was detained with her, were each fined approximately US$125 for violating the law on public assemblies.

Aiman Umarova, a lawyer in Almaty, tried to see people detained at Almalin and Alatau police stations on May 21, but was denied access, she said. Umarova told Human Rights Watch that upon her release from Alatau station, an elderly woman who had been detained with her adult son, who has disabilities, described how police used force when detaining him. Umarov said that the man was wearing only one shoe when he was released from the police station. In a video recording of their release, the woman said police had hit her son and showed his torn jacket.

Human rights defenders monitoring events on May 21 told Human Rights Watch that staff and lawyers working with them tried unsuccessfully to enter seven of eight police stations in Almaty. Aina Shormanbaeva of the International Legal Initiative Foundation told Human Rights Watch that people called to say police had demanded notes from detainees explaining why they wanted to protest, and that many were required to give their fingerprints. Most were released by the evening.

In other cities, including Pavlodar and Atyrau, people were detained before planned protests, according to media and Facebook reports. In Pavlodar, several dozen people gathered on the embankment of Irtysh river. Police detained civil society activist Serikbai Alibaev after he spoke out against land reform proposals, and he was fined approximately US$315 for violating the law on public assemblies.

The central square in Atyrau was also cordoned off by police and, according to an Azattyk media report, snipers could be seen on buildings nearby. Radio Azattyk, the Kazakh branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported that approximately a dozen people were detained in Atyrau on May 21.

More than a dozen journalists reporting on the May 21 protests were rounded up with protesters in many cities, including Almaty, Astana, Karaganda, Uralsk, Shymkent, and Atyrau. Those detained included reporters for Radio Azattyk, and the Reuters and Interfax Kazakhstan news agencies.

In most cases journalists were released soon after they presented their credentials to officers at police stations, but some were held for much longer. In Uralsk, for example, Azattyk journalist Sanat Urnaliev was held for eight hours. Police demanded that Urnaliev write an explanatory note and give his fingerprints, but he refused. He was released at about 6 p.m.

Tamara Eslyamova, editor-in-chief of Uralsk Weekly, was also detained for about eight hours in Uralsk. At the end of the day, she was taken to court and fined approximately US$316 for violating the public assembly law.

People in Kazakhstan reported that several news sites were blocked on May 21, including Radio Azattyk’s website.

Human Rights Watch did not document any violence or provocation by individuals who had come out to protest.

These mass roundups of protesters follow the arrests and short term detentions handed down last week to activists and others who had been outspoken on the land issue, including those who commented in social media networks on the planned May 21 protests. Since May 16, more than two dozen activists and others have been jailed for up to 15 days for allegedly violating Kazakhstan’s highly restrictive public assemblies’ law, Human Rights Watch said.

“It’s long past time for Kazakhstan to amend its highly restrictive law on public assemblies and ensure people can peacefully express dissenting views without fear of arrest,” Williamson said. “No one should be locked up for wanting to express an opinion.”