Kazakhstan: Almaty Shooting Spree Trial Comes to a Close
The trial in Kazakhstan of a man accused of embarking on a shooting spree in the business capital, Almaty, is approaching its end amid calls for him to face the death penalty.
Ruslan Kulekbayev freely admits to killing eight policemen and two civilians during his rampage on July 18 and has told the court he has no regrets. The motivation for the attack, Kulekbayev told the court, stemmed from his perception that police were mistreating devout Muslims.
“Your husbands and brothers were persecuting and tormenting my Muslim brothers. They unjustly judged them. They too took people away from their families. That is why I did this,” Kulekbayev said in a final statement to the court.
He was similarly unfazed by the prospect of death, although technically that penalty is prohibited by moratorium in Kazakhstan.
“You can sentence me to life in prison, you can sentence me to death, I am prepared to accept anything. I would just say this: even the life of a fly, if it pleases Allah, is valuable to me. Everything else, well… I do not recognize your judgment, the highest justice can only be dispensed by Allah,” Kulekbayev said.
Another five accomplices also on trial did not face charges connected to the mass shooting, but were accused of planning to rob a businessman together with Kulekbayev. The prosecution has asked those defendants to receive jail terms of between three and 12 years.
A verdict is due on November 2.
As suggested by the remarks above, Kulekbayev’s behavior was contemptuous throughout the trial. He always appeared relaxed and occasionally laughed into the cameras. The trial was open to journalists, although they were only able to following proceedings by video feed from an adjacent room.
On multiple occasions, hearings were suspended because of Kulekbayev’s uncooperative conduct. He refused to stand when addressed by the judge, spoke quietly and indistinctly and, one time, flipped a table at a investigator during a hearing, despite being handcuffed.
Kulekbayev’s version of events on July 18 largely coincides with that of the prosecution. He says he murdered a prostitute early in the morning that day and then headed to a courthouse in the Almaly district in the city of Almaty, where he lay in wait for judges and prosecutors to arrive. When he saw that there were too many civilians present, however, he left, as he was only interested in killing officials and policemen.
Later, he headed to a police station, where he embarked on his spree.
The picture of Kulekbayev that emerged in the trial was of a powerfully mediocre and unexceptional individual. According to one close friend, he was an avid kickboxer and regularly took part in competitions, although never placed higher than third. Kulekbayev spent two stretches in prison — once for robbery and then for illegal possession of weapons.
Security service officials have said they believe Kulekbayev fell under the influence of radical Muslims inside prison. Interior Ministry officials, meanwhile, have rejected the suggestion that Kazakhstan’s jails are a source of radicalization.
Although there is no suggestion of a direct link between this shooting spree and the mass attack in the western city of Aktobe a few weeks earlier, there is one unsettling similarity. In both instances, the presumed killers were very deliberate in their desire to single out representatives of security organs as their victims.
Aktobe-based newspaper Evrika obtained a copy of the indictment of the Aktobe attack that describes a man called Dmitry Tanatarov, who was killed on the day, as the main organizer of the bloodshed. It states that Tanatarov had aspired to go fight in Syria, but lacked the funds and decided instead to create his own militant group in Aktobe. The Aktobe mastermind’s reported justification sounds unerringly similar to that provided by Kulekbayev.
“Tanatarov said that local law enforcement bodies were harassing his brother Muslims, raping believer sisters, and he urged his followers to kill law enforcement representatives in Aktobe and even to mount an armed jihad against the civilian population,” the indictment reportedly states.
The notion that radicalized individuals in Kazakhstan see an equivalency between mounting attacks inside the country — specifically against security personnel — and joining the ranks of military groups in the Middle East must surely be one that racks the nerves of the authorities.
This trend is not new either.
A four year-old report by political commentators by Marat Shibutov and Vyacheslav Abramov entitled Terrorism in Kazakhstan: 2011-2012 points out that in the period under their review there were 14 attacks described as being of a terrorist nature. Almost all were aimed at law enforcement representatives and government buildings.
Shibutov and Abramov argued in their report that if the authorities are perceived as undemocratic, attackers are disinclined to target the civilian population, since they understand this could play into the hands of the government. The typically repressive reaction of the authorities to events like these, however, suggests that lessons are not necessarily being learned.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a journalist and researcher from Kazakhstan.