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Kazakhstan. Former minister convicted of murdering his wife. His trial started a debate on violence against women

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He beat and kicked her until he tortured her to death. Former member of the Kazakh government Kuandyk Bishimbayev was found guilty of the murder of his wife in May. Their marriage, which lasted less than a year, was marked by violence. The politician's trial, which was watched by the entire country, shed light on the hell of women in Kazakhstan. His silence is broken by subsequent victims. The first changes in the law have already taken place, but this is still a very small step.

It is November 9, 2023. At 7 a.m., a surveillance camera in one of the restaurants in the capital Astana records a brutal scene. A man punches, kicks and pulls a young woman's hair. The torturer visible in the recording is former Minister of Economy, Kuandyk Bishimbayev. The victim is his wife – 31-year-old Saltanat Nukenowa.

It is not known exactly what happened in the next 12 hours. Video recordings recorded on Bishimbayev's phone shed some light on the matter. The politician can be heard insulting his wife and asking her about another man.

The former minister calls the fortune teller several times. Meanwhile, his wife lies unconscious in the VIP room, where he dragged her by her hair. There is no monitoring in the room.

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It was only around 8 p.m. that an ambulance was called to the scene. The 31-year-old had already been dead by then, probably for several hours. An autopsy will show that she suffered a serious head injury. 230 milliliters of blood had collected between her skull and brain. There were also strangulation marks on her body.

Crime and punishment

On May 13, 44-year-old Bishimbayev was sentenced to 24 years in prison for the murder of his wife. The crime took place in a restaurant belonging to his relative. The evidence and witness statements indicate that it was a murder of particular cruelty.

As the court stated, the owner of the restaurant, Bakhytzhan Baizhanov, helped the killer cover up the traces of the crime. He tried to delete the CCTV footage in the premises and ordered the staff to remain silent. The man was also convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

Bishimbayev's trial sparked great interest in the country. The court sessions, which were held almost every day since March 11 due to the number of witnesses and evidence, were broadcast on television and on the YouTube channel of the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan.

Kuandyk Bishimbayev in court Turar Kazangapov / Reuters / Forum

The dark story of marriage

Members of the deceased's family claimed during the court trial that lasted over two months that Bishimbayev often abused his wife. The indictment included not only the charge of murder, but also of abusing his wife.

Nukenova and Bishimbayev were married for less than a year before the man took her life. The politician, who held the position of Minister of Economy from May to December 2016, was arrested in 2017 on corruption charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He left prison after three years.

Nukenowa worked as an astrologer at that time. – She helped women who were in various types of difficult situations – whether in family relationships, marital problems, or with children – said her brother, Aitbek Amangeld, in court. The man testified that Bishimbayev tried to arrange a meeting with Nukenowa, and when she refused, a “long and obsessive courtship” ensued. Ultimately, the politician managed to get the woman's phone number. Amangeld said that his sister showed him messages in which the former minister asked for a meeting and warned her not to believe everything that was written and said about him.

A few months later, Nukenova and Bishimbayev got married. Problems began shortly after the wedding. Amangeld testified that his sister showed him photos of bruises on her body. According to him, she tried to leave her husband several times. As he claimed, Bishimbayev tried to isolate his wife, who after the wedding, at the behest of her husband, left her job as a fortune teller, which she loved.

Women's hell

Bishimbayev was punished for his crime, but – as the BBC points out – in Kazakhstan, where hundreds of women die every year at the hands of their partners, obtaining a conviction was not obvious.

According to UN estimates, in this post-Soviet country, perpetrators are brought to justice in only every fourth case of domestic violence. Many victims do not report to the police out of fear.

– Reporting domestic violence takes courage, says Denis Krivoshiw, Amnesty International's deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in an interview with the BBC. He adds that the victim may be accused of “behavior provoking the perpetrator” or “destroying the family or disrespecting her husband or in-laws.”

The United Nations has estimated that approximately 400 women die each year as a result of domestic violence in Kazakhstan. For comparison, from March 2022 to March 2023, 70 women died in England and Wales – inhabited by three times as many people.

According to the Ministry of Interior of Kazakhstan, in 2023 alone, the police considered almost 100,000 complaints related to domestic violence, and the courts imposed administrative sanctions on 67,270 citizens.

Officials' wives break the silence

After the high-profile case and conviction of former Minister of Economy Kuandyk Bishimbayev, the portal of the Kazakh section of Radio Svoboda reported that a local version of the debate known around the world as MeToo for several years was starting in Kazakhstan.

Already during Bishimbayev's trial, the wife of another Kazakh official reported the abuse by her husband. “I am the wife of Saken Mamash, counselor of the Kazakh embassy in the United Arab Emirates. I declare that I have been a victim of violence for 10 years. I want my husband to be stripped of his diplomatic status and put in prison for all the violence he has committed,” the woman said in the video. video, published on May 6 on the NeMolchiKZ project profile on social media. The authorities in Astana reacted immediately, dismissing Mamasz from the facility and dismissing him from his job at the Ministry of Diplomacy.

Oljas Khudaybergenov, a well-known economist and former adviser to the President of Kazakhstan Kasym-Jomart Tokayev, also has problems with accusations of domestic violence.

– I think there will be more such public accusations – Dina Smailova, founder of the NeMolchiKZ project (from the Russian words “don't be silent” and an abbreviation for “Kazakhstan”), told the Radio Svoboda portal. An activist who is abroad due to accusations made against her by the authorities for her activities in the project. She added that Minister Bishimbayev's case was so high-profile that it triggered the authorities' reaction and the adoption of a law tightening penalties for domestic violence. However, she also stated that in Kazakhstan “the system punishes with one hand and protects with the other.”

Smailova added that although the project she has been managing for eight years has helped many women and children suffering from domestic violence and during that time she cooperated with the authorities, this did not prevent them from filing six cases against her under articles such as violation of domestic privacy or spreading false information.

A very small step in the right direction

As a result of the trial, which was widely reported throughout the country, the government came under public pressure to take action on the matter. Social activists have long pointed out that the laws in force in Kazakhstan do not sufficiently protect victims of domestic violence.

In April, while Bishimbayev's trial was ongoing, the Kazakh parliament amended the penal code, tightening penalties for domestic violence. On April 15, President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev signed the act. Under it, abuse of family members was again recognized as a crime; until now, it had been considered a misdemeanor.

Although it is a step in the right direction, the amendment to the Penal Code does not solve the problem, says Dinara Smailowa, founder of the NeMolchiKZ Foundation, in an interview with the BBC. He points out that the applicable regulations recognize that if the victim spent less than 21 days in the hospital, the damage caused is considered insignificant, and “fractures of bones, nose or jaw are assessed as “minor damage to health.”

Main photo source: Turar Kazangapov / Reuters / Forum

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