Kazakhstan: Former Top Security Chief Convicted, But Why?

A military court in Kazakhstan has sentenced a former head of the nation’s security services to seven-and-a-half years in prison on charges of divulging state secrets.

The sentence was handed down to Nartay Dutbayev by the Akmola garrison military court on August 24 following a trial held behind closed doors, but confirmation of the news has only now come to light.

Tengri News website cited the Supreme Court as saying Dutbayev has been been stripped of his military rank of general-lieutenant and his state awards.

Dutbayev presided over the National Security Committee, or KNB, from December 2001 to February 2006 — a period that saw the murder of two prominent opposition figures that government critics have routinely lain at the feet of the security services.

But nothing certain is known of what specific offenses landed Dutbayev in hot water. The broad consensus is that the move against Dutbayev could only have been approved at the very highest level, by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself.

The Kazakhstani authorities penchant for utter secrecy has inevitably given rise to much speculation and conspiracy theorizing over this case. A great deal of it, as with almost all cases of a political nature, concerns long-time government foe and disgraced banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, who lives outside the country.

Also convicted last month was a man called Nurlan Hasen, Dutbayev’s son-in-law. Hasen is said to have been stationed at Kazakhstan’s embassy in Rome in 2013, when Astana conspired with the Italian authorities to illegally deport Ablyazov’s wife, Alma Shalabayeva. After a considerable outcry that caused severe embarrassment to Kazakhstan, Shalabayeva was returned to Italy. As the individual presumed to have accompanied Shalabayeva out of Italy, Hasen’s role in the fiasco is seen as pivotal.

But the idea that Dutbayev’s punishment is retribution for a bungled move against Ablyazov hardly seems convincing.

Another line of conjecture is that Dutbayev was actively collaborating with Ablyazov and leaking information to him. 

In the absence of actual information from the authorities, media loyal to the government have nonetheless engaged in some idle tittle-tattling intended to convey the notion of a sinister plot.

One particularly exotic and convoluted account, proffered by Caravan tabloid, involves businessman Murathan Tokmadi, who ran a major glass-making factory called KazStroySteklo until his arrest by the KNB in June. Back in late 2004, the newspaper claimed, Tokmadi went out on a fateful hunting trip with Yerzhan Tatishev, the then-chairman of Bank TuranAlem, later rebranded as BTA Bank. In a much-reported incident, Tatishev was apparently accidentally shot dead after attempting to pass a hunting rifle to a fellow passenger in the off-road vehicle in which they were traveling.

The incident gained so much attention that the US Embassy even dedicated an entire cable to it, dwelling in passing on the various circulating theories of possible foul play. As the dispatch noted, Tatishev had prior to his death been linked to Ablyazov’s Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan opposition party.

“In 2002, Tatishev broke with DCK, saying that participation in a political party was inappropriate for a professional businessman.  On December 2, 2004, the BTA Chairman, together with the heads of six other banks, signed a statement that the banking sector should not be involved  into politics,” the cable read.

The embassy note goes on to suggest that “the fate of BTA and of Tatishev's 24 [percent] share will, most likely, prove the best explanation to his untimely death.”

As it happened, it was Ablyazov that went on to take over control of BTA Bank — a position that Kazakhstan’s government says he abused to embezzle billions of dollars. Ablyazov has always denied all accusations of wrongdoing.

Caravan newspaper coyly suggests — only to quickly back away from its own speculation — that  Dutbayev may have provided cover for Ablyazov during his takeover of BTA Bank.

A third individual convicted along with Dutbayev was his nephew, Yerlan Nurtayev, who was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail for abetting the dissemination of state secrets. The Caravan article — which has all the hallmarks of a piece planted by the security services — claims that Nurtayev worked for Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry in London.

“He handled financial matters linked to Ablyazov,” the newspaper claims, citing an unnamed source.

What strains belief in this entire saga is how an individual who was purportedly so deeply involved with the Kazakhstani government’s greatest nemesis could have continued to remain a constant fixture in Astana’s elite as long as he did.

People are perhaps meant to believe that Dutbayev’s alleged scheming was done in total secret, but that is a scenario so implausible that it can be discounted at the outset. Alternatively, whatever Dutbayev did or didn’t do, Nazarbayev may have, out of a sense of loyalty, chosen to forgive and forget.

If the latter is the case, then what changed?

The most obvious explanation lies in the appointment of former prime minister Karimov Masimov as head of the KNB last September. Since that time, beyond the usual arrests of opposition activists and journalists, the government has also gone after corrupt high-ranking officials and businessman and, in Dutbayev’s case, a figure with intimate knowledge of some of the country’s gravest secrets.

The scorched earth policy-lite looks like a belated effort to clear the scene of undesirable elements in the run-up to some form political transition. What shape that transition is to take, however, is yet another of modern Kazakhstan's imponderable mysteries.

Kazakhstan: Former Top Security Chief Convicted, But Why?

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