One day in March 2020, Talgat Shamiyev strode into a police precinct in Naryn province and confessed to killing a man.
Parked outside was a Lexus SUV with a body in the passenger seat. The victim, Almazbek Sulaimanov, better known by his nickname Limonti, had been stabbed 26 times.
That murder was the final chapter – for now – of a decades-old saga of violence and brutality that has its roots in the turbulent era of unbridled criminality endured by Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s.
Less than a year later, Shamiyev, 27, was in court on trial for that killing. At one hearing viewed by Eurasianet, he appeared proud and defiant as he stood handcuffed in the defendant’s cage. The medical mask over his face hid the scars from when, in January, he had sewn his mouth shut in protest at what he described as the unfairness of the justice system.
The wild nineties
The 1990s were a turbulent time across much of the Soviet Union. Gangsterism flourished and gangland killings occurred with alarming frequency. Poverty, crime and the spread of drugs had become integral features of the landscape.
The remote highlands of Naryn were not immune to the vicious struggles for power in the criminal world. Several groups vied violently for ascendancy and sought to prove their worth in an escalating exchange of atrocities.
But even amid all this chaos, there were forums for hashing out disputes peaceably. From time to time, conflicting gangs would gather for a traditional kurultai pow-wow to agree on rules of engagement and engage in mediation. The assemblies were given the knowingly ironic name of Yntymak, the Kyrgyz word for harmony and friendship.
This account of that period has been collated from interviews with relatives and local media accounts written during those years.
Yntymak was a pure ethnic Kyrgyz affair, bringing together around 160 gang members. The hardcore of this assembly, however, was composed of around 30 people, with all the others acting merely as spectators.
To be associated with Yntymak was a special honor. Everybody, including the authorities and the police, knew better than to mess with this criminal caste.
At one kurultai in the mountains outside the city of Naryn on February 27, 1997, the assembly members convened to elect a polozhenets for the region – a shadow governor of sorts. In the criminal hierarchy, a polozhenets stands below only a vor v zakone, or thief in law, which is deemed an elite position.
That February, all the 160 members of Yntymak turned up for the vote. The Torugart border checkpoint with China had only recently opened and the place of honor at the peak of the hierarchy offered rare opportunities for making money from extorting businesses doing cross-border trade. The polozhenets was also due tributes from market traders and brothels as a matter of course.
The majority at the kurultai voted to elect Imangazy Shamiyev. At the age of 36, he was old enough to have earned respect among the gangster community and sufficiently young to be fit and active. As is customary, he had a nickname, a melding of his name and surname: Imash. He was of medium height, had cropped hair, thick stubble, and dark eyes that he hid behind trendy aviator sunglasses. His leather jacket and a tall fur hat completed the uniform.
Imash had lost his father at the age of six. He grew up with his mother and two brothers, forever struggling to make ends meet. For about eight years, through to 1993, he worked in the mines in Kazakhstan. He lost a big toe in an accident on the job. Later, he got into business and became well-known in his native Naryn. One thing people knew about him was that he had two wives and a son from each. The younger son was Talgat.
The outcome of the kurultai election did not go down well with everybody. It rankled in particular with Imash’s rival, Bolot Ibrayev, better known as Boke, whose official job was coaching wrestlers at a local sports school. Imash and Boke were once friends, but their personal ambitions had soured their relationship.
Boke’s transition into criminal activity is a sadly familiar tale for struggling athletes in Kyrgyzstan. Unable to make it as sportspeople, fit young men trained to fight put their muscles to other use by joining racketeering gangs. And as a wrestling coach, Boke had his pick of new recruits. One of his wards was a man in his mid-twenties called Almazbek Sulaimanov. He was muscular, fresh-faced and had no job when he was enlisted into Boke’s gang. Barely anybody remembers his sporting prowess or even his real name. It is his street name that everybody recalls: Limonti.
Limonti gained a particular reputation for his love of flashy clothes. He was a stickler for looking neat, always making sure his clothes were well-pressed and that his shoes were polished to a shine. When shopping for new threads, he scrupulously inspected the stitching for quality. He even had a preference for certain types of zippers.
One time, when he was still in his early twenties, he had travelled to Moscow and returned to Naryn dressed from head to toe in a clothes brand called Le Monti. His outfit was so striking that people began to refer to him by that name. For sake of ease of pronunciation, the moniker evolved into Limonti.
One day after that fateful Yntymak gathering in 1997, Limonti and a buddy nicknamed Toko assaulted another participant of the kurultai, Minus, at bus stop in Naryn for reasons unknown. Bloodied and humiliated, Minus rushed to Imash to tell him what had happened. Imash, now formally empowered as an important authority in the criminal confraternity, decided to dole out some justice.
That same evening, a now-inebriated Imash and five accomplices went down to the city center to teach Limonti a lesson. They cornered Limonti and his friends at a spot near a department store. The confrontation began with an exchange of words and quickly escalated into a fight. As Limonti and his gang escaped, Imash fired several shots from his pistol in the direction of the fugitives and shouted: “You’ll see, I’ll find you and deal with you!”
Now terrified, Limonti turned to his mentor, the wrestling coach Boke, who was still nursing his own resentments toward Imash over his defeat at the kurultai election. Together they hatched a revenge plot.
The pair gathered another dozen men and kidnapped Imash together with one of his trusted associates, Shadybek Absaliyev. The posse drove to a spot by the banks of Naryn River where the 14 of them took turns pummeling Imash and Absaliyev. Limonti forced Imash to get on his knees and beg for forgiveness. Boke, meanwhile, demanded that Imash relinquish his claim to the polozhenets position.
Imash and his friend refused.
“If I survive this, you’ll all be dead tomorrow,” Imash is reported to have said in testimonies later compiled by crime reporters.
Boke declared after this that the men had to be killed. Limonti placed the pistol against Imash’s head and pulled the trigger. All 14 men took turns riddling the bodies of the two men with bullets, so that they would all bear some shared culpability. The bodies were then doused in gasoline and set alight. What remained of the charred corpses were tossed into the river.
Imash’s fate remained a mystery for many months after that, but suspicion quickly focused on Boke, Limonti and the rest.
In March 1998, Limonti, who had by then gone on the run, was arrested in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Boke and other participants were also tracked down and detained by the police. In September that year, Imash’s severely decomposed remains were found by chance, washed up in a bush around 80 kilometers from the site of his killing. His head was still joined to his blackened body by a slender thread of rotting cartilage. Relatives were able to identify what was left by his missing toe.
In May 1999, Naryn district court sentenced Limonti to death. Boke got a 13-year prison sentence, while the other accomplices got shorter terms. Limonti was spared from the consequences of his sentence, however, as then-President Askar Akayev had recently established a moratorium on capital punishment.
In 2004, Limonti was transported by prison officers to a dental clinic for treatment. There, he met a young medical worker, Alina Yunusova. Two years later, the couple married. In 2008, Limonti was diagnosed with tuberculosis and granted compassionate release. It was only later that the police discovered that the medical certificate that Limonti had provided as the basis for his release was a forgery. The medical personnel involved in the deception were themselves arrested.
In 2013, Limonti was once again tracked down by the police to a location outside Almaty. He was sent back from there to continue serving out the remainder of his sentence.
At the turn of 2020, Talgat Shamiyev, then 25, was living in a rented apartment in Bishkek. He had a lease on a cubbyhole in a shopping center out of which he sold mobile phones. In summer, he translated for Arabic-speaking tourists. He had picked up the language as a child from his devoted readings of Islamic literature – a sometimes fanatical devotion that would occasionally later in life get him into trouble with the authorities.
As his father was murdered when he was still only three years old, he was brought up by a stepfather. He nevertheless kept his father’s family name.
Throughout his adolescence, Shamiyev learned about his father in scraps of tales recounted by relatives. Another source of information was a book written in 2001 by the author Melis Mekenbayev, who specialized in weaving idealized yarns of gangland lore. In the book, Imash is cast in the guise of a Robin Hood-style figure who gave candy to kids and clothes to the homeless.
Religion and fitness were important sources of consolation for the younger Shamiyev. He performed the five daily prayers required of pious Muslims and regularly did sports. Like a typical Kyrgyz man, he married early, at the age of 23, to his childhood sweetheart, Aidai Marat kyzy. Together they had a daughter.
COVID-19 was a major blow. The shutdown enforced in March 2020 forced Shamiyev, like many other small traders, to suspend doing business. The money to pay for rent dried up. At one point, he and his family had to move back in with his mother in Naryn.
It was around this time that Limonti was again out and about in Naryn, having by then been released on parole. For about half a year, he had been living with his pregnant wife, Yunusova, and his 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. The family had moved from Bishkek too as Limonti was required by the terms of his parole to report regularly to the prison service.
Yunusova told Eurasianet that Limonti, whom she only ever referred to by his real name, Almaz, was in a state of great excitement over the arrival of his third child. Limonti had not been fully involved in the upbringing of his other two children, a fact that had been a great cause of guilt to him, she said.
“He told me to give him a son so that they could play alchy together,” Yunusova said, referring to a popular Kyrgyz children’s game played with animal bones that is akin to throwing dice. “He didn’t even know he was going to have a son at the time, he was just certain. He gave me the bones and told me to give him a son.”
To go by Yunusova’s testimony, Limonti strived to leave memories of his ugly history behind him. The couple had an iron rule: Whatever happened before they met was in the past – everything after would be different.
Yunusova said that when he came out of prison, her now-49-year-old husband dreamed only of setting up his own business, perhaps buying some cattle and trying to wipe away the misdeeds of his youth. Limonti also discovered religion and went faithfully to the mosque every Friday. His only indulgence was going on fishing trips, said Yunusova.
There are two starkly different accounts of what happened that sunny day on March 28. Some details are beyond dispute, others inevitably vary.
What is certain is that the streets of Naryn were largely deserted because of the shutdown. Around lunchtime, Limonti borrowed his wife’s Lexus to drive to a meeting with his parole officer.
There was another car out in the city plying a similar route. Shamiyev was at the wheel. He would later tell a court that he was on the way to the pharmacy to buy medicine for his daughter and that he had been planning later that day to go to the public baths with his wife. Shamiyev says he was aware that his father’s killer was free. He knew what car he drove and where he lived. And so when he spotted Limonti in his car that day, he clocked him immediately.
Shamiyev decided on the spur of the moment to follow Limonti so that he could finally confront him about the killing that had happened more than two decades earlier. When Limonti realized he was being followed, he pulled up and Shamiyev got out of his own car.
“Can I sit in your car?” Shamiyev supposedly asked Limonti, who was on the phone at the time.
“And who are you?”
“I’m the son of Imangazy, Imash.
“So what? You want to start something here? Come on pup, get the hell out of here!” Limonti snapped.
“But baike…” said Shamiyev, using a Kyrgyz term of respect to refer to an elder male.
In his testimony to the court, Shamiyev said that this was when the exchange turned violent. Limonti whipped out a knife and slashed at him, leaving three cuts in his jacket that were later presented as evidence.
Shamiyev claims he wrested the knife from Limonti in self-defense and then stabbed him 26 times. Limonti died on the spot. Shamiyev then dragged Limonti’s body into the passenger seat and sat at wheel of the Lexus himself.
For an indeterminate passage of time, Shamiyev just drove aimlessly around the streets of Naryn in a bloodied state of shock, he says. For a brief interlude, he thought about trying to cover up the evidence. He wiped the prints off the knife and got rid of his phone.
But after half an hour, he changed his mind and went instead to the police precinct to confess. Blood dripped from the car onto the asphalt in the precinct parking area as he told the desk officer his story. The policemen went out to find Limonti slumped in the passenger seat.
“I avenged my father,” he told police officers.
Later, in court, Shamiyev spun his story a little differently. He said he was not motivated by revenge and that he only killed Limonti out of self-defense and that he was in a heightened emotional state at the time of the incident. A psychological evaluation carried out later reached no definitive conclusion on this latter claim.
“Of course, [Shamiyev] felt hostility, but that he did this out of a desire for vengeance, that just isn’t the case,” said his lawyer, Zhanybek Monolbayev. “He only wanted to talk with [Limonti]. He sat down calmly, he understood the circumstances, he didn’t have a knife, he didn’t have anything. It was the middle of the day. If he was planning anything, he would have come in a mask, he would have got hold of a pistol.”
All that is Shamiyev’s story.
Experts for the prosecution insist the evidence points to a very different version of events.
They say the killing was carried out by a group of people as part of a prior conspiracy. Shamiyev said he did the stabbing with Limonti’s own knife. But forensic experts said in court that Limonti’s wounds indicate that he was stabbed with different kinds of blades, implying that several weapons were used and that more than one killer was involved.
Medical examiners noted that one of Limonti’s wounds indicated he had been struck in the head with a blunt object. One knife blow to this neck severed his spinal column, almost entirely detaching his head.
And Yunusova insisted that there was no way Limonti would have been driving around with a knife. He possessed only one hunting knife and he had left that at home on that day, she said.
Khadija Zazazova, a lawyer acting for Yunusova, argued furthermore that one person acting in an emotional state could hardly be expected to inflict the injuries that he did. When Shamiyev handed himself in, his jacket and shoes were completely clean, which would have been impossible had he been handling a body in the cramped confines of a blood-soaked automobile, Zazazova said.
“The blow to the neck was the last and decisive one. That was when his cervical vertebra was broken,” she said. “Just one person sitting in the front [seat of a car] could not have done that, and certainly not in five minutes.”
On February 18, at the end of a trial that lasted almost a year, Shamiyev was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Neither his relatives nor those of Limonti are happy with the verdict.
Shamiyev’s family say the court failed to properly consider all aspects of their self-defense argument.
Yunusova says the court was overly lenient and should have also taken account of the prosecution’s contention that an entire group of killers might have been involved in perpetrating a cold-blooded execution.
“The children had not seen much of their father,” Yunusova said. “We had hoped that we could go on a trip somewhere together with the kids as soon as his [parole ended]. We had so many plans. He didn’t want to die.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.