Guilty verdicts in a highly publicized trial in Kazakhstan are not putting an end to the question: who killed opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev? Government critics suggest that officials were eager to wrap up the trial so that it would not complicate President Nursultan Nazarbayev's upcoming visit to Washington.
A Kazakhstani court announced the convictions of the 10 defendants in the Sarsenbayev murder trial on August 31. The man alleged to have contracted the murder, Yerzhan Utembayev, the former chief of staff of the Kazakhstani senate, received a 20-year prison term. The court gave a death sentence to the supposed killer, Rustam Ibragimov, a former Interior Ministry employee. However, the sentence is unlikely to be carried out given Kazakhstan's moratorium on capital punishment. The eight other defendants all linked to Kazakhstan's security and interior forces received prison sentences ranging from three to 20 years.
Sarsenbayev, along with his driver and bodyguard, were killed execution-style in the mountains outside Almaty in February. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since then, the case has been a source of political tension in the energy-rich Central Asian state. Sarsenbayev, a one-time Nazarbayev lieutenant, had emerged as a leading opposition figure following a very public split with the president. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive].
According to the verdict read out at the trial's conclusion, Utembayev contracted Ibragimov to murder Sarsenbayev in revenge for a newspaper article making unflattering revelations about him. Ibragimov who reportedly received $60,000 for the job then set up a death squad comprising rogue members of elite Kazakhstani anti-terrorism units. The squad supposedly kidnapped Sarsenbayev and his aides, and delivered them to Ibragimov, who proceeded to kill the three men.
The version of events set out in the court verdict is almost identical to the theory put forward by Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov two weeks after the murders occurred. Much of the prosecution's case rested on Utembayev's early confession, backed up by a letter he, as a senior official, wrote to Nazarbayev after his arrest. In the letter, Utembayev said that his antipathy for Sarsenbayev prompted him to order the killing. Utembayev admits writing the letter, but now disavows its contents, saying he wrote it under duress. During the trial, both leading defendants caused a sensation by recanting their confessions, and, instead, alleging a conspiracy involving top-level political leaders.
In early August, Ibragimov implicated several high-level officials in the murder plot, including Nartay Dutbayev, the former security service chief who resigned over the revelation that security commandoes were involved in the murder, and Senate speaker Nurtay Abikayev the man constitutionally in line to take power if anything happens to the president. Sarsenbayev's murder, Ibragimov claimed, was part of an elaborate plan to overthrow Nazarbayev, who is scheduled to travel to Washington later this month for an Oval Office meeting with US President George W. Bush.
Dutbayev and Abikayev were not called to give evidence in court. Just over a week after the allegations were made, the judge abruptly halted the trial at the prosecution's request and began the summing up, without allowing time for the introduction of further evidence. The decision prompted Sarsenbayev's relatives to boycott the trial. An aide to Abikayev, Dastan Kadyrzhanov, cast doubt on Ibragimov's credibility. "This looks like another stage in a planned campaign to discredit a person who is part of the country's leadership," Kadyrzhanov said.
Many observers - including opposition leaders, journalists and relatives of the victims - have found the court's version of events to be implausible. At an opposition-sponsored public hearing August 29, Sarsenbayev's brother, Rysbek, said that the court "has unfortunately not discovered on whose conscience lies the blood of" the murdered trio.
Views on Ibragimov's coup-attempt allegations vary. Many have questioned why men whose power rests on Nazarbayev would conspire to carry out a coup. Opposition journalist Sergey Duvanov speculated that Sarsenbayev could have been abducted in order to force him to discuss a coup plot and film him doing so, with a view to discrediting the moderate opposition. "This was an act of provocation against the opposition; they wanted to spread terror against
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.