- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — An angry crowd of 2,000 people surged through rows of riot police in the nation’s biggest protest in two decades, acting after police disrupted a memorial service for a slain opposition leader with loud techno music.

The service was held in honor of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, one of four co-leaders of the growing pro-democracy opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The speeches were drowned out by a powerful sound system in which the music alternated with harangues from the city prosecutor ordering the crowd to disperse and warning that the penalty for organizing an unauthorized demonstration was a year in jail.

“As a former prosecutor myself, I have to say that perhaps we were wrong to come here without permission, but the government’s actions in this memorial service are despicable,” Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, the opposition’s candidate in the last presidential election, shouted into a tinny megaphone.

Mr. Tuyakbay and the leaders of the pro-Western Ak Zhol opposition party tried to hold a minute of silence in memory of their friend as the ear-splitting music thumped.

Frustrated, the crowd decided to march in protest to Republic Square, the scene of a 1986 massacre in which students demonstrating against abuses in Soviet power were mowed down by the dozens. Kazakhs say the massacre marked the beginning of the end of Russian occupation of Central Asia.

Riot police armed only with truncheons tried to lock arms to stop the march several times, but were unsuccessful.

Opposition to Mr. Nazarbayev, who has ruled his country with rising authoritarianism for a decade and a half, remains limited as Kazakhstan’s oil-fueled economy surges ahead.

“Kazakhstan must wake up,” Mr. Sarsenbayev’s widow, Sultanat, told the crowd at the square. “It’s going to be difficult to stop us from now on. Let the Nazarbayev family leave Kazakhstan immediately.”

After much applause and shouts of “Nazarbayev shame,” the demonstration dispersed peacefully. But participants said afterward said that they felt exhilarated at having — for the first time — defied the authorities and gotten away with it.

Eight men have been arrested in connection with the Feb. 12 execution-style slaying of Mr. Sarsenbayev, his driver and his bodyguard. But it is widely thought that the killing must have been ordered by someone high in the government.

The most recent arrest was that of Yerzhan Utembayev, a mild-mannered economist with reformist views not unlike those of the opposition, who is the chief of staff to Senate speaker Nurtay Abykaev.

Mr. Abykaev is reputed to be the president’s most loyal aide, having served in a variety of posts. As president of the Senate, he is first in line to succeed Mr. Nazarbayev in the event of his death or premature departure from office.

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