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Exclusive: Kazakhstan's new president says some protesters detained 'by mistake'

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Exclusive: Kazakhstan's new president says some protesters detained 'by mistake'
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REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov
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Kazakhstan's newly-elected president says some of those arrested during protests over Sunday's vote were detained by mistake and will be released.

In an exclusive interview with Euronews, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the government had got the message over the demonstrations.

His words represent a significant development in a country that has long been criticised over its human rights record.

Tokayev won a snap presidential election with 71% of the vote, according to the country's election commission.

He was the handpicked successor to 78-year-old president Nursultan Nazarbayev who unexpectedly resigned after nearly 30 years in office.

Protests broke out in Kazakhstan on Sunday as the country headed to the polls to vote in an election that many said had a foregone conclusion.

Tokayev spoke to Euronews' Galina Polonskaya about the protests that dominated news headlines about the election.

Tokayev said some protesters were "detained just by mistake" and that "we will apologise before them, meaning they will be let go pretty soon, so this problem will be fixed".

Many protesters had "grievances" that "concern social problems", the Kazakh president insisted. "I don't deny those issues exist, mainly it's linked to the population getting poorer, people demand the solution to their actual socio-economic problems," Tokayev said.

He said the authorities would "work on it".

For those who said the election was unfair, Tokayev said "it's just their opinion. And my opinion is that, generally, the elections were fair, that's it".

But many said the election was not fair.

"Significant irregularities were observed on election day, including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures meant that an honest count could not be guaranteed," the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's election observation mission wrote in its preliminary findings on Kazakhstan's election.

Tokayev's ruling party Nur Otan controls official media channels in the country and is seen as largely authoritarian.

It's also not the first time protesters have been detained in Kazakhstan, but the protests on the day of the election received more international attention.

"Authorities in Kazakhstan have long restricted the right to peaceful protest, to freedom of expression. They’ve taken actions against individuals who have been critical of the government," said Mihra Rittmann, the Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"People have gone to jail for much longer than one or two days for trying to exercise their right to peaceful protest in the past," she said.

Police also detained foreign journalists and rights workers as part of the arrests on Sunday, human rights workers said.

AFP journalist Chris Rickleton said he fell on a policeman's knee during a "rough arrest" and had his accreditation taken from him.

As long as authorities restrict citizens' constitutional right to protest, "the same repressive tactics that we have seen in the past will continue and will continue to mar the government’s claims to be working towards democracy," Rittmann said.

Read more about the election here.

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