BISHKEK (AFP) - Police in Kyrgyzstan detained around 20 activists who defied court bans on rallies related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine by protesting against Russian leader Vladimir Putin, an AFP correspondent saw on Saturday (April 2).
The arrests in the capital Bishkek come as the gruelling conflict fuels pro- and anti-Moscow sentiment in ex-Soviet Central Asia, a five-country region tightly-tied to Russia.
Impoverished Kyrgyzstan's Kremlin-loyal president Sadyr Japarov had on Friday pleaded with protesters to limit their rally to a park in the city rather than march to the Russian embassy, as they had announced on social media.
Japarov said that embassies are "the inviolable property of foreign countries".
"Nobody has the right to knock their doors down and raise a noise," Japarov wrote in a Facebook post.
There was no indication that the tiny rally that saw activists gather in another part of Bishkek and hold up posters criticising Putin and his invasion, was anything other than peaceful.
Police who arrested the demonstrators after asking them to disperse cited decisions by city courts on Friday to prohibit rallies related to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict across Bishkek as their pretext.
Activists argued that the court rulings were unconstitutional.
"It turns out you don't respect the court?" an AFP correspondent heard an officer ask demonstrators, before police rounded up the activists and pushed them into a police van some 10 minutes after the rally started.
Rallies are typically tolerated in Kyrgyzstan, where three presidents have resigned amid political unrest since independence.
Fellow Central Asian neighbour Kazakhstan has stricter anti-protest legislation, but permitted a large protest against its ally Moscow's war in Ukraine in its largest city Almaty at the start of last month.
Almaty authorities refused to permit organisers to hold a follow-up demonstration just two weeks later.
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - the most populous country in Central Asia - have made statements distancing themselves from Russia's invasion.
The conflict has left thousands dead and triggered Europe's largest refugee crisis since World War II as well as unprecedented sanctions against Moscow.
Earlier this week, an aide of Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev told the Europe-focused media outlet Euractiv that the oil-rich republic does not want to risk "being placed in the same basket as Russia" and would not help Russia evade sanctions.
On Saturday, Putin and Tokayev agreed during a phone call that it was vital for an agreement to be reached for a neutral, non-aligned and nuclear-free Ukraine, Kazakhstan's presidential office said.
In a readout of the call, it said that Putin had briefed Tokayev on the progress of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.