Kazakstan: A Murder Case Pre-Judged?

A senior official arrested for the murder of a leading opposition figure is publicly arraigned as the culprit before he even faces trial.

Kazakstan: A Murder Case Pre-Judged?

A senior official arrested for the murder of a leading opposition figure is publicly arraigned as the culprit before he even faces trial.

Public concern at the murder of prominent opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev has been heightened by fears that the investigation is heavily subject to political bias and potentially flawed as a result.



When Sarsenbaev, co-chairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol party, was found dead alongside his driver and bodyguard on February 12, the authorities reacted swiftly, offering a record reward of 75,000 US dollars and then, on February 22, making the shock announcement that several members of an elite security unit had been arrested.



About 10 people are currently in custody in Almaty. Five are members of Arystan, an elite combat unit which is part of the Committee for National Security or KNB and some of the others are also said to be law-enforcement officers. The case has already prompted the resignations of KNB chief Nartai Dutbaev and Arystan commander Erjan Koibakov.



Also on February 22, Erjan Utembaev, chief of staff at the Senate or upper house of parliament, was detained in the capital Astana.



The unprecedented degree of openness shown by the authorities acted helped counter suggestions made by the opposition that if members of the security forces were involved, the government itself must be implicated.



But what initially seemed a determined effort at transparent and swift action to clear up this high-profile and politically sensitive murder has faded.



Opposition members are now concerned that the investigation is being conducted with excessive haste and along pre-determined lines that could prevent the truth coming out. The information now emerging is much sparser and gives the impression of having been carefully filtered.



The figure of Utembaev has become the centrepiece of the case built up by investigators, with the KNB men assigned the role of contract hitmen.



Utembaev is a senior figure who has held number of senior position as deputy prime minister, deputy head of the presidential administration, and chairman of the board of the state firm Kazakhoil, before becoming chief of staff of the Senate.



Before he has even stood trial, both Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhametzhanov and President Nursultan Nazarbaev have all but judged him guilty.



At a press briefing on February 27, the interior minister set out a story of a revenge killing in retaliation for a personal slight. He even recounted how Utembaev is alleged to have taken out a 60,000 US dollar bank loan to fund the contract killing.



But after this fairly detailed exposition of the case against the accused, the minister gave only curt answers to probing questions put to him by journalists



In an address to parliament on March 2, President Nazarbaev gave what amounted to his personal verdict on the accused. He said Utembaev had written to him confessing to the crime and saying he had acted alone out of a sense of long-harboured resentment towards Sarsenbaev.



Written confessions play an important part in trials in Kazakstan, but as in other countries an accused person is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and material prejudicial to his or her case should not be splashed across the media. Many believe Utembaev now has little chance of a fair trial, and that the full story of Sarsenbaev’s killing may never be told.



The authorities have brought in an FBI expert in an effort to show that the investigation will be objective.



But civil rights groups, opposition parties and the general public have only the somewhat lurid statements made for public consumption to go on.



So far they are not impressed. Without prejudging the outcome of Utembaev’s impending trial, many believe is being fitted up as the principal culprit – perhaps to cover up a more explosive truth.



“The authorities are trying to announce a long-term solution to this monstrous crime as quickly as possible,” said Oraz Zhandosov, the former central banker who is, like the late Sarsenbaev, a co-chairman of Naghyz Ak Zhol. “This only shows that the investigation is not objective, and that it’s politically biased.



“These hasty statements mean that the investigation will not develop or look into other possible versions [of the truth] suggested by the public and parts of the media.”



Concerned at the fair trial issue, leading human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis and well-known lawyer Alexander Rosenzweig have made separate offers to defend Utembaev, but nothing has been heard from him since he was taken into custody.



Political analyst Andrei Chebotarev believes the Sarsenbaev case has badly shaken the Nazarbaev administration.



“Its reputation has been seriously damaged – the special services have been implicated in the murder of a high-ranking official,” he said. “A second aspect is that the version of events put forward in the investigation has had doubt cast on it. This indicates that either the law-enforcement agencies are incapable of presenting [their case] properly – placing a question-mark over their professionalism – or that the case is subject to political bias.”



The whole affair, he suggests, shows that the authorities are in a “state of confusion” and are “desperately trying to escape from this crisis”.



There is a growing sense that the government’s handling of the case has slipped from the initial assured determination to an air of desperation. One of the curious sideshows in the case has been a flurry of accusations which appeared on internet sites and in other media suggesting that figures close to President Nazarbaev should also be questioned in the case. The response was a threat of libel actions against those behind the accusations.



In an unfortunate reminder of the authorities’ hostility to their critics, 11 top opposition leaders were arrested for holding public meeting in Almaty on February 26 to mark Memorial Day, remembering the victims of Stalinist oppression. They were charged with holding an “unsanctioned meeting” even though they had received prior permission from the authorities; the accusation is that the assembly spilled over into areas not covered by that permit.



In trials closed to the media, Guljan Ergalieva, Orazov, Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, Tulegen Zhukeev and others were fined 200 or 300 dollars apiece, while others including Bulat Abilov, Petr Svoik, Marzhan Aspandiyarova and Asylbek Kojakhmetov were sentenced to between five and 15 days in jail.



In court, Abilov – who got five days – was defiant. “I am ashamed of the system. Over the last 15 years, people’s minds have been subjected to grave distortion, and this needs to be fixed,” he said.



Zhandosov, freed after paying his fine, warned that the sentences, and the court’s failure to even address the appeals filed by his imprisoned colleagues, added to the damaging impression that the Sarsenbaev investigation was creating about overall civil liberties and rule of law.



“All in all, the current situation, and the brutal, calculated and very public murders of Altynbek Sarsenbaev, [his bodyguard] Baurzhan Baibosyn and [his driver] Vasily Juravlev, make for a bad precedent for Kazakstan,” he said.



Gulmira Arbabaeva is an independent journalist in Almaty.
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