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'I Don't Know If She's Dead Or Alive': Desperate Kazakh Families Looking For Relatives After Unrest

A Kazakh soldier patrols an Almaty street following deadly protests that rocked the city at the start of the year.
A Kazakh soldier patrols an Almaty street following deadly protests that rocked the city at the start of the year.

Nearly two weeks after days of bloody violence in cities across Kazakhstan, dozens of families are still desperately looking for their loved ones who went missing during the unrest.

“My mother, Bibigul Qoqanbekova, left home to join the protests on January 5 and I haven’t heard from her since,” says Sayazhan, who lives in the southern city of Semei.

“Some people said that my mom’s head was smashed by security forces at the protests. I don’t know if she is dead or alive,” Sayazhan told RFE/RL, pleading for help to find her mom.

The Kazakh Prosecutor-General’s Office has said that at least 227 bodies were transferred to morgues. But the authorities still haven’t released the names of the dead.

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The government also hasn’t published the list of those detained in connection with the unrest that began with small protests against fuel price increases in the western town of Zhanaozen on January 2. The demonstrations soon spread to other cities and turned into violent clashes with security forces, who had been given a shoot-to-kill order by President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

Desperate for information about their missing relatives, people are checking hospitals, morgues, and detention facilities, activists and family members say.

Aitbai Aliev, a 62-year-old activist from the southern province of Qyzylorda, was last seen on January 5 when police officers took him away, according to his son Artur.

Kazakh activist Aitbai Aliev (file photo)
Kazakh activist Aitbai Aliev (file photo)

Aliev failed to respond to phone calls the following day. The family began looking for him first in police stations and jails, then in hospitals and morgues. They finally found his body in a morgue on January 15.

Artur says, there were “large wounds” on his father’s head when he saw the body at the morgue.

“Morgue employees told us that my father was in that state when he was sent from the police station to the intensive care unit, and then to the morgue,” Artur said. “He was brought to the morgue on January 6, but police didn’t even call us to tell us.”

Like in Aliev’s case, police and other government agencies often don’t help people looking for their missing relatives, activists say. The families are left on their own to find out if their loved ones are dead, being kept in jails, or receiving treatment in a hospital.

Artur describes his father as a “peaceful anti-government activist who didn’t even carry a stick [let alone get involved in violence.]”

A video recorded on January 4 shows Aliev and several others trying to reassure a uniformed official that their protest rallies were entirely peaceful. He appears to be in good health.

The family doesn’t know happened to Aliev while in police custody. They haven’t received any answers or an explanation for his massive wounds and death. But many people, including protesters who were arrested by police, accuse officers of beating and mistreating detainees.

Activists and relatives also suspect that some protesters were beaten to death in detention centers.

'Horror Room'

In the western city of Atyrau, one local resident took to social media to claim that local police turned the city’s Dinamo sports center into a “torture” house to punish incarcerated protesters.

Sergei Shutov says he was among the people police rounded up several days after the demonstrations and placed in makeshift detention centers, including the sports center and a state-run boarding school.

“Officers took me to a special room for beatings, it was like a horror room,” Shutov told RFE/RL. He said officers beat him “on the head, chest, back, and shoulders,” sending him screaming in pain.

Sergei Shutov (file photo)
Sergei Shutov (file photo)

“They ordered me to face the wall and put my hands behind my head, and then kicked me several times in the ribs and in the kidneys,” Shutov said.

“When they kicked my hips, I fell and could not get up. I was then ordered to walk on [my hands and knees].”

Shutov said that after “six hours of beatings” by masked officers he was forced to sign several documents prepared by police and given two days of "administrative arrest."

His body covered in bruises, Shutov says he still has pain, swelling, and blood in his urine.

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Authorities in Atyrau rejected Shutov’s claims as baseless, but similar allegations of beatings and mistreatment have been made by dozens of people detained during or after the protests.

Shutov likened detention facilities in Atyrau to the notorious Minsk prison Akrestsina, where Belarusian security officers reportedly beat and tortured anti-government protesters.

More than 12,000 people were detained during and after the unrest. Many were later released.

Hiding Those With Gunshot Wounds

Some in Almaty claim that security forces have been checking hospitals for patients with gunshot wounds to remove them.

“After the clampdown on the protests, police began abducting patients with gunshot wounds from hospitals,” human rights advocate Ghalym Ageleuov told RFE/RL.

A man walks past a police station in Almaty that was vandalized during mass protests triggered by a fuel price increase.
A man walks past a police station in Almaty that was vandalized during mass protests triggered by a fuel price increase.

Activist Aleksandra Ushakova made a similar claim, putting the number of the “missing patients” in Almaty at around 30. Activists have added them to the list of the missing.

There was no immediate comment from the authorities. RFE/RL cannot independently verify the claims.

Relatives, eyewitnesses, and activists say that ordinary people -- including children -- were hit by bullets in the streets even several days after the protests.

“There were innocent people that were shot dead -- for example, someone going to the pharmacy in the evening, or visiting a relative in an emergency,” one Almaty resident said.

Toqaev blamed the uprising on unnamed “armed bandits” and internationally trained “terrorists,” of which he said there were some 20,000, though the government has produced no evidence at all to back that claim.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondents Khadisha Aqaeva and Saniash Toiken

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