A group of Kazakh homeowners protested in an underground vault on Friday against state plans to evict them from their house, a rare show of discontent in the tightly run former Soviet republic.
The economic crisis has sharpened social tensions and emboldened Kazakhs to speak out against the government in the oil-producing nation which has been ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for two decades.
In Almaty, its skyline dotted with construction sites frozen by the credit crunch, a group of women crawled into a manhole on one of its busiest streets and shouted "Fascists!" and "We want justice" as they protested against a plan to evict them.
They said a court decided last month to eject 100 people from a dormitory, classifying them as squatters and ruling that their continued occupation of the premises was illegal.
"We have lived there for 10 years and we have all legal rights to live there," said Farida Cheripova, a protester. "We will stay here until they allow us to live in our house."
Several passersby, bewildered by the site of a rare protest, craned their necks to peek inside as other protesters waved Kazakhstan's blue national flag and chanted slogans.
The spokesman for the Almaty mayor's office said he could not immediately comment on the case. Justice officials could not be reached for comment.
Public protests are rare in Kazakhstan, a Caspian nation where the state tolerates little dissent. The opposition is weak and disorganised and has little say in domestic politics.
Nazarbayev, 68, is worried that an abrupt economic downturn will encourage his people to question his rule after years of uninterrupted economic growth and booming incomes, analysts say.
The opposition said on Friday the eviction case exposed deep-seated injustices in the mainly Muslim nation.
"The authorities understand that this crisis has sharpened social tensions," said Amirbek Togusov of the opposition Social Democratic party, who represented the homeowners in court.
The protesters said they would not leave until their demands were met. "We have nowhere to go," said Cheripova, her voice echoing inside the dark manhole. "Besides we are quite comfortable sitting in here. It's warmer than our apartment where we don't even have cold water."