When Darkhan Ualiyev’s wife finally got to see him in jail, on January 20, he had been behind bars for almost 10 days.
His face, typically full and graced with a boyish grin, was covered in fading bruises. These were the traces of what he told her was an eleven-hour ordeal of police abuse.
Ualiyev was also in mourning. His brother, Arslan, had been shot dead during the unrest that tore through Kazakhstan and culminated in the country’s largest city, Almaty, in the first week of January.
“Darkhan lay in a cell for 10 days. He said that the police beat everybody in turn,” Bulbul Berdykozhanova told Eurasianet, weeping, of what she had learned from Ualiyev.
Ualiyev, 54, is one of almost 550 people that state prosecutors say either organized or participated in the turmoil, known commonly as the Bloody January events, which claimed the lives of at least 238 people. He says he has been unjustly accused and that he is now caught in the cogs of a relentless justice system.
Zhanara Balgabayeva, Ualiyev’s lawyer, informed Eurasianet that investigators may even seek to pile more charges against her client by requalifying his alleged offenses as acts of terrorism. If he is found guilty on that count, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
“I was the first person to see Darkhan,” Balgabayeva said. “He was in a terrible way. One of the police investigators told me: ‘Yes, he has some bruises. Perhaps he fell down somewhere.’”
Bothered by injustice
For as long as Berdykozhanova can recall, her husband has always been exercised by injustice and corruption. They first met when they were children. Bear-like Ualiyev was a classmate of Berdykozhanova’s cousin. They began courting after leaving school.
When nearby Tajikistan descended into civil conflict in the 1990s, Ualiyev served briefly in a Kazakh detachment of a post-Soviet peacekeeping force. He returned from that war with the rank of sergeant.
After marrying Berdykozhanova in 1998, he got a job on a collective farm in his village of Baktybai, in the Almaty region. That job ended, said Berdykozhanova, “when the chairman divided up the plots with a few others” and disbanded the farm.
Ualiyev then moved to Almaty, a two-hour drive from his hometown, in search of any job he could find. He mostly found petty driving work. Amid the economic ruination of the 1990s, there could be little thought of going to university, but Ualiyev, a keen reader, nevertheless stressed the importance of education to their three children. Last year, one of their sons completed a master’s degree from an Almaty university.
Ualiyev’s transition from a passive critic of the government to activism appears to have occurred in 2019 – an important turning point for modern Kazakhstan.
That year, long-time president Nursultan Nazarbayev finally pulled the trigger on the succession process by announcing his intent to resign.
Any notion of a sharp departure in the country’s political was instantly dashed, however.
Nazarbayev handpicked an old and loyal friend, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to replace him, thereby signaling his intent to pursue continuity over change. Nazarbayev retained many powers for himself in his bespoke role as Elbasy, or father of the nation. His relatives and cronies, who controlled much of the country’s most valuable money-generating assets, weren’t going anywhere either.
Ualiyev attended his first political demonstration on June 9, 2019, the day that Tokayev was elected. He may well have been emboldened by how many thousands of like-minded people had come out onto the streets of Almaty that day to register their disgust at what appeared to them like a choreographed spectacle.
Police arrested protesters in their hundreds, physically pulling away scores who huddled around a monument in the city’s Astana Square. At police precincts, where officers struggled to cope with the sheer numbers arriving in paddy wagons, the mood was defiant. In detention, Ualiyev struck a friendship with activists sympathetic to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, or DVK, opposition movement, Berdykozhanova said.
DVK was designated an extremist organization by a Kazakh court in 2018. Lawmakers in the European Parliament have by contrast characterized it as a peaceful opposition movement and called for the release of its imprisoned members.
If DVK inspires as much hatred as it does from the Kazakh government, it is most likely because of its founder, Mukhtar Ablyazov, a one-time insider who held senior government jobs and ran the country’s most important bank before evolving into the regime’s ultimate nemesis. Ablyazov now lives in Europe, from where he routinely urges his supporters to mount rallies. As for the multiple crimes for which he has been convicted in Kazakh courts, Ablyazov says they are politically motivated.
Ualiyev soon came to enjoy his life as an activist.
Aidar Orazbekov, an ally in the political fight, says Ualiyev’s strength of character won him admirers in the circle. On one occasion, Ualiyev attended a picket almost immediately after he was released from a stretch in jail, Orazbekov recalled.
“So they jailed him for 15 days again. He is persistent and principled,” he told Eurasianet.
Last October, this persistence got him into more serious trouble. Ualiyev and 12 other DVK activists were convicted of belonging to the Koshe Party. This party was really only a hopeful rebrand of DVK designed to evade extremism charges. Four fellow defendants received five-year prison sentences. The others, Ualiyev included, received parole-like sentences of “restricted freedom.”
Ualiyev was not long into this punishment in January, when Kazakhstan was plunged unexpectedly into a maelstrom of unrest. The protests began small, in the west, as people came out to show their discontent at a sudden rise in car fuel prices. Within days, they had evolved into a nationwide surge of anger over perceived economic stagnation and corruption.
The state has its version of what Ualiyev did in those days. He has his own story, which he shared in an open letter that he penned from his cell in February. What follows is drawn from that account, unless otherwise stated.
In the thick of it
On the morning of January 5, Ualiyev performed his traditional waking ritual of a cup of coffee on an empty stomach. He was only able to follow the course of the unfolding protests online, because of the terms of his conviction.
The night before, thousands upon thousands had converged onto central Almaty before they were tear-gassed by riot police. A group of policemen had been stationed in the courtyard of Ualiyev’s apartment block and warned him that they would arrest him if he tried to leave the house. This is not unusual. It is commonplace for police to detain known political activists before they can reach the site of demonstrations.
On the afternoon of January 4, Ualiyev had managed to strike a deal with a sympathetic officer. He could go out and make some money doing taxi runs for a few hours, so long as he took a policeman along with him for the ride. None of the routes took him anywhere near the swelling protest, and he returned home that evening.
By the morning of January 5, the police in Ualiyev’s courtyard were gone, possibly called away to help deal with an increasingly turbulent and uncertain situation in the city.
Sensing that the city was not safe, Ualiyev drove his family to a taxi stand so that they could travel on to Taldykorgan, the capital of the Almaty region, about three hours away, where Berdykozhanova’s parents lived. He then drove back toward Almaty’s Republic Square and the hulking town hall, known as the akimat, just in time to witness the arrival of a “human flood” surging towards the building.
Things quickly spun out of control.
“The angry crowd was beating the soldiers who were behind the akimat,” Ualiyev wrote in his letter. “By the time we ran to their rescue, many soldiers had already been beaten. One by one, I began to drag the soldiers out of this chaos in the direction of Zheltoksan Street.”
A video reposted by Berdykozhanova shows (right) what she says is Ualiyev helping carry a man in army fatigues away from the square. It is impossible to verify from the video alone whether the man is a soldier or not, however.
With the akimat overrun and a battle brewing next door inside the premises of the president’s Almaty residence, Ualiyev issued a cry to free prisoners being held for attending unsanctioned protests. This call is captured both in Ualiyev’s account and in the prosecutorial indictment detailing the case against him.
But the two accounts differ on what he did next.
Ualiyev wrote that he flagged down a car and headed to the city police department with three other protesters. Their knocks on the gate went unanswered, he said. So Ualiyev climbed the precinct gate and yelled for attention. One officer came over.
Ualiyev says that he asked the officer “not to carry out the criminal orders of your superiors” and proposed joining forces to maintain order on the square. He then asked about the detainees, who he said would help in this effort. The officer purportedly said nobody at the precinct was being held over involvement in unsanctioned protests.
Ualiyev and his comrades then flagged down another car and travelled to a nearby detention facility. There is nothing in either Ualiyev’s account or the indictment to suggest that Ualiyev and his cohorts were armed during these encounters with police.
The indictment nevertheless claims that the release of 11 detainees from a police station was secured only through “threats of violence” from Ualiyev and his group. Some of the released individuals “headed to Republic Square and the airport, where mass disorders, seizures of buildings and terrorist acts took place,” the indictment reads. The indictment offers no detail on how Ualiyev himself participated in this unrest.
Ualiyev, for his part, says that he was on the square until midnight, but that he did not commit any violent acts. He returned home in despair, he wrote, convinced that peaceful protests had been hijacked by “armed provocateurs.”
Things were about to get much worse.
Detained at the morgue
In the days that followed, Ualiyev was getting multiple phone calls from family members, including his elderly parents. They had grown agitated on January 6, when Ualiyev’s older brother, Arslan, stopped answering their calls.
Ualiyev was less inclined to worry. Arslan was not an activist like him. In fact, he had warned Ualiyev several times, just as January’s violence was escalating, to be mindful and avoid trouble.
But as time went on, even Ualiyev began to worry.
On January 8, after checking in with Arslan’s friends and getting nowhere, Ualiyev began a search of the city’s hospitals. Then, with a heavy heart, he visited the morgues. On the second day of his search, he visited one morgue in which he saw at least 50 corpses, many bearing the tell-tale signs of a violent death. Arslan was not among them.
That night, Berdykozhanova informed him that the police had been in contact and were searching for him.
Fearing nothing worse than a routine slap on the wrist for participating in an unsanctioned protest, Ualiyev stayed with relatives to evade the police.
On January 10, he returned to the morgue where he saw the dozens of bodies. As he took his place in the line to speak to somebody, he saw a journalist from RFE/RL’s Kazakh service interviewing the bereaved. After Ualiyev agreed to an interview, the journalist walked away to set up his camera. But the interview never happened.
Almost as soon as the journalist turned his back, Ualiyev heard a cry of “that’s him” and felt two men seize him from behind. The men, whom he identified as special forces police, bundled him into a vehicle parked around the side of the morgue.
Inside the vehicle, one of the men struck him hard, just above the eyebrow, causing blood to flow. At the end of the five-minute ride, the same man who struck him dragged him out and onto the ground, before delivering a series of kicks to Ualiyev’s body and face. Ualiyev did not yet know where he had arrived but understood that he was on display.
“Guys, look who I found,” Ualiyev recalled the man shouting as he kicked him. “It’s the negotiator!”
The family only tracked down Arslan’s body once his brother was in jail. He had bullet wounds in his forehead and chest. The family laid him to rest on January 13.
The precise circumstances of Arslan’s death are still a mystery.
“When I find the time, I will take on Arslan’s case,'' said Balgabayeva, the lawyer, who is representing four people arrested and allegedly tortured in the wake of January’s violence.
“First we need to get Darkhan out,” she said.
In his open letter, Ualiyev recalls sharing his grief over Arslan’s death with a cellmate.
“All my life that man looked out for me like I was still the small boy of our childhood,” he told his fellow prisoner.
“Yes,” his companion replied. “And maybe he caught your bullet, too?”
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.
Daniyar Moldabekov is a journalist based in Almaty.