Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: Al-Qaeda-Linked Suspects Tried

In the first case of high treason seen in Kazakstan, two men are accused of laying the ground for an al-Qaeda camp.
By IWPR Central Asia

The ranks of mounted police and masked soldiers in camouflage gear wielding stubby-barrelled Kalashnikovs made security so tight that even the judges had difficulties getting into the courtroom.


They were there for a reason: Kazakstan was holding its first trial for the capital offence of treason in half a century. The case has become a major national news event, and journalists flocked to the courthouse in the southern city of Taraz for the initial hearings on March 9 and 11.


Two men, both Kazakstan nationals, are accused of scouting for the site of a planned al-Qaeda training camp, which was never set up because they were arrested.


Despite the security concerns surrounding such a high-profile case, the trial is open to the public and the local police have been unusually helpful with media enquiries.


A separate trial opened in Taraz on March 15 in which 16 alleged Islamic radicals face terrorism charges relating to violence in nearby Uzbekistan last year.


The treason case did not start out that way. When Dilmurat Shayusupov, 33, and Rahim Sultangaziev, 37, made their first court appearance they thought they were facing the charges of possession of narcotics and arms, respectively, for which they were arrested.


However, in court the state prosecutors revealed that they would be on trial for high treason under article 165 of the criminal code, because of their alleged assistance to al-Qaeda. It’s a charge that has not been invoked since 1945, when Kazakstan was still just a republic within Stalin’s USSR.


Treason carries the death penalty, but if the men are convicted the sentence is unlikely to be carried out as Kazakstan signed a moratorium on executions in 2003.


Prosecutors say that on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, UAE, in 2002, Shayusupov met two local men who, they allege, were part of the international al-Qaeda network.


The two Arabs are said to have taken an interest in Shayusupov, in part because he was a devout Muslim.


In written testimony presented to the court, the accused stated that his father had died when he was away and he did not have enough money to go back to Kazakstan, let alone pay for the funeral expenses. “My new friends in Dubai immediately gave me 2,000 [US] dollars for my father’s funeral,” he said.


The two Arabs paid a visit to Kazakstan in September 2003, staying with Shayusupov who also introduced them to Sultangaziev. Prosecutors say that at this point, the two Kazak nationals agreed to work with the al-Qaeda agents and each received 5,000 US dollars.


In January 2004, Shayusupov went back to the UAE where he was given a new car and tasked with buying a plot of land in a remote part of Jambyl region, and putting some livestock on it to make it look like a farm, so that the site could be used as a training camp for armed militants.


He and Sultangaziev were issued with 50,000 dollars in cash and a video camera, the indictment says. They duly filmed some likely sites in a mountainous part of Jambyl region and sent the videotapes off to their friends in UAE.


Jasulan Adilbayuly, the chief prosecutor at the trial, explained the significance of these actions to IWPR, “It is no coincidence that they selected mountainous parts of Merke and Ryskul districts bordering on Kyrgyzstan. Firstly, if a base were created for training guerrillas, the sounds of shooting would be muffled excellently by the mountains. Secondly, judging from the video footage they shot, they were interested in a location right next to the… Kyrgyz-Kazak border, which is high in the mountains and is not guarded at all.”


The terrain, said Adilbayuly, is the reason, why the al-Qaeda agents opted for Jambyl rather than the neighbouring Shymkent region, where the land is flatter and the frontier with Uzbekistan is much better guarded.


In the end, the site never became a militant training camp, because the Kazak nationals were arrested. A Kazak law-enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that Shayusupov had been under surveillance for years because his brother, a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, had been killed in 1999 in one of a series of car bomb explosions that was ascribed to the outlawed group.


When Shayusupov and Sultangaziev heard they were accused of treason, they renounced the written testimony they had given during the pre-trial investigation and insisted they were not guilty of the charge.


Gabit Prmagambetov, the defence lawyer representing both the accused, insists they are innocent, and that they were unaware of any al-Qaeda connections.


Instead, he said, their relationship with the two Gulf residents was purely commercial. The Arabs had contracted the accused to raise 1,000 sheep which would be exported to the Emirates in time for Eid al-Adha, the festival which Muslims celebrate by sacrificing livestock, and a canny businessman can make a good profit by meeting the demand. The lawyer said the men actually acquired some farmland, but it was on open ground close to a main highway, not in a remote highland area.


The lawyer also alleged the investigation had been flawed – for example, he had been denied access to his clients throughout that stage, and the men had signed their testimonies under duress. He said that one of the men’s brother and sister-in-law had been detained and only released in exchange for the confessions.


The other trial now in progress has many more defendants and relates to an actual event rather than an alleged plot. Sixteen Kazakstan nations are accused of complicity in the suicide bombings at the United States and Israeli embassies and the national prosecution service offices in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on July 30 last year. Six people including the three attackers were killed.


Proceedings there are being conducted under wraps, which court officials say is because it involves another state, Uzbekistan.


The defendants are accused of belonging to a little-known Islamic group called Jamaat Mujahedov, or the Society of Mujahedin, which Kazak officials say was broken up last August. Topping the list is Jakshibek Bimurzaev, thought to be a Jamaat leader.


The defendants – who include one young woman - consist of mainly ethnic Kazaks and Uzbeks, and the principal charge they face is “terrorism” under the criminal code. Although the majority are from Kazakstan, few actually hail from the Jambyl region where the trial is taking place.


Kazakstan has come in for a lot of criticism from Uzbek officials over the last year for what they see as its failure to tackle an upsurge in Islamic extremism. They have cited a Kazak connection to last year’s bombings, and even alluded to the existence of “terrorist training camps”. Uzbek leaders are clearly concerned that the more lenient political and legal environment in their northern neighbour provides something of a safe haven for Islamic opponents of the Tashkent government, who would have no place to hide at home.


The Kazak authorities have taken a number of steps to show they are committed to counter-terrorism, including the recent banning of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir group.


In private, some Kazak officials articulate the view there wouldn’t be a problem if the Uzbek authorities were not so repressive and suggest that, as a result, Uzbekistan’s domestic troubles are effectively being exported to neighbouring states.


The two trials in Taraz will therefore serve to show other Central Asian states that Kazakstan is serious about getting tough on Islamic radicals, including anyone suspected of involvement in attacking Uzbek targets.


The unprecedented step of bringing treason charges and giving the media open access to the trial may also be for domestic consumption.


Hinting that poverty, not Islamic fervour, may be the most fertile recruiting ground for subversives, IWPR’s law-enforcement source said, “Since most of the impoverished rural population of Jambyl region live in border areas, this demonstrative trial should act as a preventive measure.


“These southerners need to realise what they can expect if they get lured by the temptation to get easy pickings from other potential recruiters.”


The trial of the al-Qaeda-linked suspects has been adjourned to March 24. Observers say the other case is likely to take months to complete because of the multiple charges and numerous defendants.


Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Taraz.