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One Year Later, Doubts Swirl Around Kazakh Border-Guard Murders

A memorial service in June 2012 for one of the 14 border guards who died in the late-May killings on the Kazakh-Chinese border.
A memorial service in June 2012 for one of the 14 border guards who died in the late-May killings on the Kazakh-Chinese border.
One year after 14 Kazakh border guards and a forest ranger were brutally murdered at a remote post on the Kazakh-Chinese border, Kazakhs remain unsettled by the case.

It has been plagued by a spotty investigation and a controversial conviction of the alleged killer, 20-year-old Vladimir Chelakh.

Chelakh was found nearly a week after the killings, sheltering in a nearby camp, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying a gun.

He was sentenced to life in prison in December after being convicted of shooting his victims and setting the mountainous Arkankergen border post alight, burning it to the ground.

Chelakh, who has been described by his family as a "dreamer" who was eager to volunteer for border service, changed his testimony several times during the trial, and at one point said he had been tortured by his jailers to force his confession.

His conviction has raised a groundswell of protest among ordinary Kazakhs, some of whom say his trial was a sham.

An online petition calling on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to order a retrial has collected more than 21,000 signatures.

Factual Discrepancies?

Doubts about Chelakh's guilt are pervasive enough that even the families of his alleged victims have stepped forward to criticize his conviction. Several of Chelakh's relatives this week stood side by side with the victims' families at the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to those slain at Arkankergen.
Vladislav Chelakh, who was convicted of the killings, is seen in a video still during a court appearance in December.
Vladislav Chelakh, who was convicted of the killings, is seen in a video still during a court appearance in December.

Chelakh's lawyer, Serik Sarsenov, continues to maintain his client's innocence. He says many questions remain about the murders themselves, particularly why it took border authorities two days to report the crime, which took place on May 28 but was only announced on May 30.

Sarsenov also says there is ample forensic evidence to suggest that more than 15 people were killed in the Arkankergen attack.

In a recent interview with the Kazakh edition of "Forbes" magazine, he says that as many as 19 people may have been killed and that investigators failed to hand over bone shards and human remains found in the officers' lodgings.

Alternate Explanations

Such claims have only fueled speculation that the murders may have been the outcome of a bungled smuggling operation or other criminal deals.

Adding to doubts about the case, the bodies of several of the reported victims have never been positively identified.

Twelve of the 14 border guards have been identified and buried. But conclusive DNA material has never been found to prove the remaining two, Denis Rei and Mayirhan Imenov, were among those killed in the attack, despite the participation of forensic researchers from Berlin's Charite university hospital.

The parents of both men continue to harbor hope that their sons are still alive. Rei's mother, Tatyana, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service the past year has been "torture" for her but that she believes her son may still come home.

The Rei family has never retrieved the remains because they don't believe they are those of Denis. They told RFE/RL they don't believe he was even at the scene.

Mysterious Events

The Arkankergen case has highlighted massive problems within Kazakhstan's border service, which has struggled to maintain security along the country's 12,000-kilometer frontier.

The head of the border service, Nurzhan Myrzaliev, stepped down shortly after the incident. His replacement, Turganbek Stambekov, died in a plane crash within months of taking over.

But a year after the murders, many Kazakhs say it's not just the border service that should answer for the enduring doubts surrounding the Arkankergen case.

In Almaty, victims' relatives gathered for a small rally on May 30 at which they reiterated their support for Chelakh and his family, and protested a decision by Kazakh broadcaster KTK to pull a scheduled program about the killings off the air.

Local newspapers cited protesters as saying the program was removed because it featured testimony from victims' relatives who defended Chelakh's innocence.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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