Hundreds of demonstrators on Saturday defied a heavy police presence to stage a rare protest in Kazakhstan against strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the conduct of legislative elections.
Around 1,000 people shouted angry slogans against the Kazakh leader on the fringes of Republic Square in the largest city Almaty in an unusually large protest for Kazakhstan's tightly-controlled society.
"Freedom!" chanted the demonstrators. "Nazarbayev go!"
The demonstration had not been sanctioned by the authorities and police erected barricades around the square to prevent the protestors from entering its centre, an AFP correspondent said.
With around 500 members of the security forces present there was an atmosphere of high tension but so far it appeared that the police were allowing the demonstration to go ahead.
Leaders and top activists from the anti-Nazarbayev opposition, which won no seats in parliament, 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 declaimed: "The people are stronger than the regime. We must show our strength!"
The demonstration -- originally called to protest against fraud in parliamentary elections -- has 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.
Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party won almost 81 per cent of the vote in the 15 January polls which international observers said failed to meet "fundamental principles of democratic elections."
The 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.
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.