Shot, tortured, facing jail: Can Kazakhstan deliver justice after Bloody January?
Over 1,000 people are awaiting trial related to the unrest. Many were simply onlookers injured in the crossfire. They are now navigating a criminal justice system weighted firmly against them.
By January 5, Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, was under a near-complete information blockade.
The day before, anti-government rallies had turned ugly after demonstrators were dispersed by riot police deploying batons, stun grenades, and tear gas. The following morning, violent mobs of uncertain provenance stepped into the fray, seizing and then destroying government buildings. Government troops began firing.
Spooked authorities turned off the internet in a panicked attempt to deter the escalation of what would later come to be known as Qandy Qantar, or Bloody January. At least 230 lives would be claimed in the bloodshed.
Daulet Zhabarbekov, a 23-year-old security guard, says he stepped blind into this turmoil.
“I just wanted to see why people had gone out to a peaceful rally,” he told Eurasianet. “I thought I’d go, then I’d go home. I had nothing in my hands. I just went to a peaceful rally as a citizen of Kazakhstan and that was it.”
Zhabarbekov, who lives in the suburbs of Almaty, insists he has no interest in politics. He says he was just rubbernecking, drawn to Republic Square by the word-of-mouth chatter.
It was a disastrous decision.
“I didn’t think there would be shooting, but I went there and I got shot. I didn’t see who shot me. A bullet hit me in the left leg. Another hit me in the hip,” he said.
When he spoke to Eurasianet in February, Zhabarbekov was still clearly in pain. Looking wan and dazed, he hobbled uneasily to a bench outside an upscale shopping mall in Almaty as he sat down to give the interview.
His memories are a haze. Zhabarbekov thinks he might have been on the square for about an hour when the bullets started raining down. He heard no warning that live rounds were about to be fired. He recalls no visible presence of police or soldiers.
“The bullets hit me, I lost consciousness and I ended up in the hospital,” he said.
He would not speculate about who had fired the bullets.
“I can’t say anything, honestly, because I didn’t see it with my own eyes,” he said.
He awoke later to find that a part of his intestine had been removed in an operation to extract the bullets from his body.
And then masked security forces burst into his ward and dragged him from his bed. Days of torture perpetrated by law enforcement officers followed, says Zhabarbekov.
He is now facing charges of participating in mass unrest that could land him in prison for eight years.
In the days after the violence subsided, the police embarked on a vast spree of detentions, spurred on in part by the frantic statements of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who spoke of 20,000 bandits having descended on Almaty. By the time they were done casting their net for people to arrest, around 12,000 people, very many of them just peaceful protesters, onlookers and passersby, had been detained. Fines and brief custodial sentences were handed down with abandon in the aftermath of the violence that Tokayev has characterized as a bid to topple him.
But over a thousand people are still awaiting trial on charges ranging from treason to terrorism and looting to marauding, as the investigation drags on into a third month.
Among them is Zhabarbekov.
He and many others are now having to navigate a criminal justice system they do not understand and that is almost by design weighted against the defendant. As the political scientist Alexei Trochev has written, judges in Kazakhstan “consistently show ‘accusatory bias’ and side with the state prosecution in both the pre-trial and trial stages of criminal proceedings.”
For what it’s worth, the authorities are adamant all defendants are getting good legal representation.
“Detained suspects are provided with access to qualified lawyers including, if necessary, with free defense lawyers at the state’s expense,” the Foreign Ministry, which has been leading the public relations campaign on the fallout from the Bloody January turmoil, said in an April 11 statement.
Palace intrigue is complicating the pursuit for clarity and justice. In parallel with the mass prosecutions over alleged acts of violence, state investigators are making a case against the former leadership of the security services, whom they accuse of having somehow engineered or enabled the events. Almost no details of that official narrative have been disclosed.
When it came to finding people suspected of involvement in the street unrest, law enforcement fell back on crude criteria. Anybody who had been shot must, somebody in the security establishment appears to have concluded, be considered a potential suspect.
So it was that masked rifle-toting men came to collect Zhabarbekov from his hospital bed on January 8. He described what happened as a “mask show,” using a popular expression referring to shock-and-awe operations conducted by masked officers to instill fear in their targets with shows of force.
“I was in the bed and they beat me with their rifles,” he said.
Zhabarbekov was then escorted, only half-dressed, into a waiting van with dozens of other injured men. This group was driven to a now-infamous detention center on the outskirts of Almaty, where, as Zhabarbekov and others put it, “there was terrible torture” that went on for days.
“They beat me around the head, and when I [was told to] put my fingers on the table they beat them with truncheons – they’re still weak now. Then when I was sitting in the cell, they took me into the corridor and […] said put your hands on the floor, and they beat them with truncheons,” he said.
There was no presumption of innocence. Interrogators shouted: “All of you who have been shot are terrorists, maniacs, murderers, looters.”
In the middle of March, Zhabarbekov joined a dozen other former detainees recounting similar experiences to release a public statement about their mistreatment in custody.
“It’s clear that deceit, beating and torture won’t lead to the clear-cut truth, but, on the contrary, will do more harm than good,” said Kosai Makhanbayev, a man who also faces charges of participating in the unrest, reading from a prepared text at the offices of the Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law, an advocacy group. “The premise that all these people who signed up to this appeal are linked to a crime is a faulty premise, and this has now become deeply ingrained in the minds of local law-enforcement officers.”
Many of those who had joined Makhanbayev that rainy Sunday afternoon were still limping and using crutches to get around.
By mid-March the authorities had received 301 torture complaints and opened investigations into 243 cases. Zhabarbekov is one of those who has filed a complaint.
The most notorious case of abuse involved Azamat Batyrbayev, a resident of the southern city of Taldykorgan. The public reacted with horror when photos showing how interrogators had used a hot clothes iron to torture him went viral on social media.
An officer is under arrest in connection with that case, but these brutal practices were far from isolated occurrences. Authorities said in mid-March they had received 11 complaints of law enforcement officers using irons on their victims. They dismissed seven complaints as groundless.
The Foreign Ministry later said that nine officials, including eight from the security services and one police officer, are in detention facing investigation for what they euphemistically term “unlawful methods of investigation.”
The government has to date admitted to eight fatalities caused by torture. Rights activists fear the true figure may be higher.
Much of the abuse appears to have taken place in a legal vacuum created by officers who failed to register detentions for days on end. Zhabarbekov’s arrest on January 8 was not recorded until January 11. Other detainees report similar time lags.
Surviving in this black hole – subject to regular beatings, denied medical treatment for festering gunshot wounds, deprived of access to lawyers and family visits – was disorientating and terrifying, Zhabarbekov said.
Every time the interrogations and beatings started up, Zhabarbekov had only one thought: “to stay alive, at least to get back to the cell.”
Zhabarbekov says that in the end, he agreed to sign a confession that he had not read, and which he has now retracted.
He has no copy of his own confession and has no idea what it said. But when he signed it, the beatings stopped. Later, he was charged under Article 272, Section 2 of the Criminal Code: participating in mass unrest, an offense punishable by up to eight years in prison. He is one of 547 people facing charges of organizing or taking part in the disorder.
The rapid-fire court hearing that ended with Zhabarbekov and others being ordered to remain in a pre-trial detention facility for two months pending further investigations was a confusing blur. A state-appointed lawyer did little to shed light on what was happening. Zhabarbekov now has a private lawyer working on his case.
“The hearing was a performance,” said Zhabarbekov. “We all got two months on remand.”
Relatives of detainees are at an almost complete loss to help. In January and February, the sight of groups of people holding up signs pleading for clemency outside the prosecutor’s office in Almaty became a familiar one.
A Eurasianet correspondent met with Zhabarbekov’s mother at one such picket on a chilly mid-February morning. She spoke of the anguish she felt after her injured son had disappeared from his hospital bed, not to be heard from for days on end.
“On [January] 8, I went to look for him, and I couldn’t find him. He was in the emergency ward, then they took him from there,” said Gulzada Zhabarbekova. “I went looking for him around the whole town, no-one could tell me anything.”
Zhabarbekova is a widow and Daulet is her only child. His father was killed in an industrial accident in 2014, crushed by a crane on the site where he worked as a security guard. The family had moved to Kazakhstan from Tashkent, the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan, when Zhabarbekov was a schoolboy, under a program to lure ethnic Kazakhs born abroad to come and live in their “historical homeland.”
Zhabarbekov got a job, as his father had, working as a security guard. He trained as a specialist repairing dental X-ray equipment but was unable to find a position in that field, he says, because he did not have the money with which to bribe recruiters or any influential family connections.
Those are common complaints among jobseekers in Kazakhstan. These were, indeed, the very kinds of grievances, along with the rising cost of living, that brought so many protesters out onto Kazakhstan’s streets in January.
Zhabarbekov makes around 200,000 tenge ($400) a month, which is well below the national average of 273,000 tenge ($570). It is perhaps a sign of low expectations in modern Kazakhstan, though, that he insists this was enough for him and his mother to get by.
Outside the prosecutor’s office, Zhabarbekov’s mother expressed desperate hope that her son would at least be released on bail.
“He’ll be out tomorrow, they’re saying, kuday kalasa,” she said, invoking the Kazakh expression for “God willing,” a mantra for the relatives gathered at the prosecutor’s office.
As it happens, the following day, on February 18, Zhabarbekov was abruptly set free, having spent a little over a month in detention.
“They just opened the cell door and said, ‘you’re leaving’ and that was it,” he said in an interview five days later. “I was surprised.”
When the trial happens, it is likely to be held over Zoom or WhatsApp. To the chagrin of rights campaigners, the courts have still not restored in-person trials, even though almost no COVID-19-related restrictions remain in force in Kazakhstan.
“Online trials have turned into total lawlessness,” activist Bakhytzhan Toregozhina wrote in a Facebook post on March 28.
Even an MP from Kazakhstan’s pliant parliament has begged the authorities to allow defendants to attend hearings in person. Online trials resemble “a conversation between a blind and a deaf person,” with “frequent interruptions in communication, whistles and noises, poor audibility” all marring the process, Berik Dyusembinov complained last year.
As he waits to go to trial and find out whether he will be found guilty of an offense he insists he did not commit, Zhabarbekov is unable to work because of his injuries. He is struggling to access medical treatment because, he says, medics are wary of taking on patients who were shot during Bloody January.
“The doctors don’t want to take responsibility.”
The wounds are not healing well. But the psychological scars may take even longer to heal.
“I still have problems sleeping,” he said. “Even though I’m free, I have psychological trauma. It’s hard.”
Shot, arrested, tortured, denied healthcare and contemplating a spell in jail, Zhabarbekov is nevertheless reluctant to apportion blame to the state that is responsible for at least some of these ills.
“I don’t have anything against the state,” he insisted. “I have something against whoever shot me.”
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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