Kazakhstan: Land Trial Hinges on Dubious Testimonies
After a week of hearings, the trial in Kazakhstan of two antigovernment activists charged with organizing unsanctioned protests has revealed numerous cracks in the state’s case, although it is unlikely this will make a guilty verdict any less probable.
Hearings in the case of Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan began on October 12 and stem from a wave of unprecedented land reform protests in the spring that saw several thousand people hitting the streets of Atyrau in April.
One of the prosecutors’ most explosive charges is that Bokayev and Ayan were acting on the pay of a power-hungry tycoon from the southern city of Shykment, Tohtar Tuleshov, who authorities claim was looking to sow instability as a prelude to seizing power. Tuleshov is also in jail and facing trial separately in behind-closed doors proceedings in the capital, Astana.
Tuleshov gave testimony by video conference to the Atyrau court as witness for the prosecution on October 18. It is alleged Tuleshov gave Ayan $100,000 to finance the protests.
The state’s version of events is that Tuleshov hoped to sow the conditions for the creation of a vice presidential post, which does not now exist, presumably to set the stage for him to eventually take over the reins from 76-year old Nursultan Nazarbayev. This initiative would have come about by an engineered grass roots movement, prosecutors suggest.
In his testimony, Tuleshov admitted as much, although his account does not bear too much scrutiny.
“I studied the issue of land reforms. And like every Kazakhstani, I was not very happy that land was to be sold to foreigners. I began to look at the region, I looked with attention at the west of the country, where more people are disposed to look negatively upon the sale of land,” Tuleshov said in his testimony. “I came across Talgat Ayan, an activist who has organized all kinds of rallies.”
Tuleshov said that although he has never met Ayan in person, he got to know him through the internet and through an unnamed friend in Atyrau.
In cross-questioning, Bokayev asked Tuleshov if he had ever independently addressed the government with his proposal of creating the vice president role. Tuleshov said he had not got around to doing it.
When asked what he intended his purported $100,000 gift to Ayan to be used for, Tuleshov said he had hoped for roundtable discussions and press conferences to discuss the land reforms. Tuleshov said he had no control over the money and how it was spent.
The sequence is also incoherent.
Tuleshov says that he planned to give money to Ayan back in 2015. The land law was adopted in haste and without any public discussion in November of that year. Bokayev and Ayan claim they only ever learned of the land reforms this past spring, which was indeed when the issue became a topic of broader public discussion.
The genuine unpopularity of the land reform is an awkward elephant in the room for prosecutors and lays bare a logical inconsistency in the state’s case. Even Nazarbayev now freely admits that the law was adopted with too much haste and without sufficient consultation with the public. In acknowledging as much, the authorities appear to be freely admitting that protests were a naturally occurring demonstration of public discontent. And yet, at the same time, they paradoxically argue that the protests could only have ever been whipped up artificially by ill-intentioned parties. The two positions are not easily reconciled.
On October 18, the court heard the video conference testimony of two men identified as Tuleshov’s assistants. One, Olzhas Bekbauov, claims to have traveled to meet Ayan and given him a pack containing $100,000 in cash despite never having met him in person before. Even after being detained and questioned in connection with this case, Bekbauov claims to have identified Ayan in photos by “recognizing his eyes.”
Ayan and Bokayev both filed motions to have Bekbauov and the other Tuleshov assistant, Nurali Dosanbayev, give their testimony in person to ascertain that they were not providing their accounts under duress. That plea was resisted by the prosecution.
“There is no difference between online cross-questioning and giving witness testimonies in person,” prosecutor Kurmet Sydykov argued to the court. “If the defendants feel that the witnesses are being subjected to pressure, they can clarify this during the online cross-questioning.”
The court dismissed Ayan and Bokayev’s motion.
Ayan promptly declared that he was going on a hunger strike, while Bokayev complained of ill-health. Despite the absence of the defendants in court, hearings continued.
On October 19, the lawyer acting for Ayan, Yerbolat Imangaliyev, told RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, that his client had attempted to slash his wrists in protest at what he perceived as an unfair trial. Bokayev remained absent, citing ill health. Prosecutors and the judge alike dismissed these developments as playing to the gallery.
Critics of this ongoing trial cite the example of Rinat Kibrayev as illustrative of how prosecutors are able to extract useful testimonies.
Kibrayev, 26, who has in the past fallen foul of the authorities for his criticism of the government, provided an incriminating testimony on October 19. He and his wife were sentenced to time in jail in August on charges of purportedly running a brothel out of a massage parlor. Kibrayev’s supporters initially argued that the activist was being set up in retaliation for his political engagement — which included participation in the land protests. But once the trial came around, Kibrayev agreed to a plea bargain that saw his pregnant wife avoid serving a custodial term — for now.
Kibrayev told the Atyrau court that he met with Ayan at the start of May and joined him at a banya, where he purportedly learned that Ayan had secured funds to go ahead with an anti-land reform protest scheduled for May 21.
The trial continues on October 20, when government officials are expected to give their own accounts of what they believe lay behind the land protest movement.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a journalist and researcher from Kazakhstan.