A court in Kazakhstan on July 11 sentenced a journalist and civil activist to four years in prison over her purported involvement in a plot to seize the country’s main air terminal during the violent political unrest that unfolded at the start of 2022.
People in the packed Almaty courtroom angrily chanted “shame” as security personnel led Aigerim Tleuzhan out of the building. Scuffles broke out between members of the public and police in the corridor as a crowd formed to try and stop Tleuzhan and fellow defendants from leaving the building. Similar scenes were repeated outside the courthouse.
Another four people in the dock on related charges — Kalas Nurpeisov, a former school history teacher, Nurlan Dalibayev, Yermukhamet Shilibayev and Zhan-Aidar Karmenov — received even stiffer sentences of eight years in prison.
The severity of the sentences is likely to deepen concerns that the Kazakh authorities are failing to live up to pledges to pursue greater political liberalization.
According to indictments seen by Eurasianet, Tleuzhan was until October only being questioned as a witness in the case. Investigators later determined that she had been directly responsible for “supervising rioters, determining their movements, making demands of airport workers, forcing the suspension of their activities, with the goal of preventing the arrival and departure of aircraft, including an aircraft carrying [Collective Security Treaty Organization] troops.”
Tokayev had appealed to the Moscow-led CSTO alliance on January 5 for assistance restoring public order across Kazakhstan.
In interviews to Eurasianet, Tleuzhan and Nurpeisov both admitted they were at the airport at the height of the unrest, but they rejected the characterization of their actions as described by investigators.
“I went to the airport to find out whether the information about the arrival of Russian troops was reliable, and, if there were any provocations, to somehow try to prevent trouble,” Tleuzhan told Eurasianet in an interview last year. “I now understand that this was unrealistic. I was there for about half an hour and then left.”
Tleuzhan repeated her denials ahead of the sentencing.
“All 40 witnesses confirmed that we had no weapons in our hands. We didn’t have any firearms or even any crude weapons, we didn’t even have a knife or a stick in our hands. We were not wearing masks, we didn’t hide our faces, we didn’t threaten anyone," she told reporters, adding that she was prepared to spend time in prison to uphold her political views.
While the facts of what happened at Almaty airport may be in contention, it is beyond dispute that the group sentenced on July 11 are a far cry from the 20,000 “bandits” and terrorists that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev spoke of at the height of the crisis.
“[There] were trained militants who were being flown here under the guise of being migrant laborers. They were led through passport control desks, released into the city and then put in charge of the operation,” he said in an interview in late January, apparently alluding to an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
Having failed to unearth any trained militants, prosecutors turned their attention instead to the likes of Tleuzhan.