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Does Kazakhstan Want To Stop Violence Against Women Or Just Control The Message?

A rally against violence called "Say no to the animal world" was organized by a pro-presidential group in Almaty on November 26. Many participants seemed unable to articulate their demands beyond a rejection of what they called animal-like violence.
A rally against violence called "Say no to the animal world" was organized by a pro-presidential group in Almaty on November 26. Many participants seemed unable to articulate their demands beyond a rejection of what they called animal-like violence.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- On the surface, it might seem like Kazakh officials are responding busily to the most high-profile incident of spousal murder in the country's history.

In the capital, Astana, lawmakers insisted this week that they are working to strengthen punishment for domestic violence.

In the largest city, Almaty, authorities took the rare step of permitting a rally against violence against women at the end of November, held after former Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev was jailed on suspicion of killing his 31-year-old wife, Saltanat Nukenova.

Look a little deeper, however, and there are troubling questions about what officials in the government of President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev seem to want to take from this tragic event.

Why, for instance, after one group of organizers was permitted to hold a demonstration on the topic, was another denied the same privilege?

And why, at a time of increased public debate around violence against women, is one of the civic groups that has done the most to draw attention to these crimes finding itself under financial sanctions and an investigation?

A Rather Strange Rally

Since it is rare for officials in Kazakhstan to permit demonstrations of any kind, it makes sense to begin with the protest held in Almaty on November 26.

Headlined "Say no to the animal world," the rally was bizarre for reasons other than its branding.

Interviews by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service with demonstrators who were willing to talk -- many refused -- revealed that most had traveled more than 1,000 kilometers from Astana to protest in Almaty.

Moreover, many participants seemed unable to articulate their demands beyond a rejection of what they called animal-like violence, a trait represented by posters depicting half-man, half-beast figures, and animal masks put on mannequins in a cage.

Alikhan Sarsenov, a member of the Zhana Adamdar (New Faces) group that organized the rally, told RFE/RL the demonstrators didn't "see the point" of stricter legislation on domestic violence and were instead looking to promote behavioral change.

"People's thinking will not change if the [punishment] is altered by five or 10 years. We need to change our own thinking so that people understand [that violence is wrong]," he said.

This moderate position -- and the very fact the rally was allowed -- becomes more understandable in the context of Zhana Adamdar being an ardently pro-Toqaev group whose members have previously met with the president.

After news broke that this group had been granted permission to demonstrate, independent feminist groups soon complained that spin doctors in Toqaev's administration were trying to take control of an emotive public conversation about gender-based violence.

Zhanar Adamdar did not hide its admiration for Toqaev.

"Today, we came to this square to say no to the animal world. The president says our country must live by rules and laws," said Sarsenov colleague Asel Badenova in a speech at the event.

Silencing 'Don't Be Silent'

At the same time, two feminists who tried to gain access to the demonstration were turned back by police for carrying placards demanding the end of an ongoing investigation targeting, a nonprofit famous for its support for victims of sexual violence. (Don't Be Silent) recently lost access to its local bank accounts and, although police have failed to provide the organization with any details of the case, the group's head, Dina Smailova, believes she is being falsely accused of embezzling money that was crowdsourced as part of the charity's work.

As it turned out, the problems facing were raised by another participant at the rally, and one that organizers could hardly shut down.

Aitbek Amangeldy, Nukenova's brother, spoke emotionally about his 31-year-old sister, who was beaten to death in a private room at a luxurious Astana restaurant owned by the Bishimbaev family prior to Bishimbaev's arrest.

And he used the occasion to excoriate the authorities for failing to pass laws to protect women and for wasting time harassing a fund that does so much to help the vulnerable.

Aitbek Amangeldy speaks out at the rally in Almaty on November 26.
Aitbek Amangeldy speaks out at the rally in Almaty on November 26.

"Without this fund, thousands of girls will be left without support," Amangeldy said of, without naming it. "I hope that in a year, when I come to Saltanat's grave, I will be able to tell her that we have changed something, that we are becoming better, kinder, and, most importantly, more empathetic toward each other," he said.

Zhana Adamdar has said it will continue to hold public events against gender-based violence.

But the independent feminist organization Feminita said on December 4 that it had been denied the same opportunity, after its applications to hold rallies on two squares designated for demonstrations on December 9 were rejected by the same Almaty authorities that gave Zhana Adamdar the green light.

Almaty's municipality told the group that one of the squares was undergoing repairs, while the other had already been booked by other organizers for "mass cultural activities," Feminita said in a statement on social media.

It's The Cops, Stupid

Despite hundreds of women dying from abuse every year, domestic violence is not fully criminalized in Kazakhstan.

The angry public reaction to Nukenova's death, however -- and a petition that garnered more than 150,000 signatures -- has made that situation seem untenable going forward.

The speaker of Kazakhstan's lower house, Erlan Qoshanov, said on December 5 that lawmakers were considering amendments to the Criminal Code that would remove noncustodial sentences as options on convictions for inflicting moderate and serious harm on a person -- two crimes closely associated with domestic violence.

Kazakhstan had already made progress in combating domestic violence earlier this year, Qoshanov said, after complaints filed by third parties -- rather than just sufferers of abuse -- and video evidence became potential pretexts to arrest abusers.

Erlan Qoshanov (file photo)
Erlan Qoshanov (file photo)

But this is skirting around the main problem, as Qoshanov knows well.

Under current laws, even with this type of evidence, a settlement between abused and abuser can still kill a case and leave a victim vulnerable to further violence. And as women's rights groups are tired of pointing out, police are often more than happy to facilitate such reconciliations -- sometimes in exchange for money from the perpetrators of the violence.

This and other key problems in the process might have been partially solved by a law on the prevention of domestic violence that made it to parliament in 2020 but never got beyond a first reading.

Margarita Uskembaeva, an activist and proponent of the law, noted at a recent press conference in Almaty that the draft legislation clearly defined the responsibilities of police in relation to domestic abuse cases, as well as the responsibilities of the Health, Labor, and Education ministries, where appropriate.

But "the law was shelved due to a wave of hate that turned out to be stronger than [the views of] progressive experts," Uskembaeva said at the November 22 event. "Those same law enforcement agencies do not want [laws] to fight [domestic violence] to work."

Recent cases have highlighted how police officers can also be active participants in violence against women.

Smailova of became aware of the case against her just days after her November 16 Facebook post highlighting a hitherto unpublicized incident in which two police officials in the province of Konaev allegedly raped a 14-year-old girl.

Dina Smailova
Dina Smailova

Smailova said that she had heard that the policemen had been removed from their positions but that their bosses were trying to avoid the case becoming news. She publicly demanded more information about the case.

Any backlash would only be logical. The weeks before the post had been bad enough for the reputation of Kazakh police.

A video of a policeman trying to force a rape victim into withdrawing a statement had gone viral, generating disgust, while a police chief in the town of Taldyqorghon had recently been detained on suspicion of raping a woman.

The apparent case against Smailova would be the third in the history of

The activist and her lawyer claim that police have been harassing citizens that donate to the organization in different parts of the country in an attempt to get them to write statements against her.

RFE/RL correspondents made a number of phone calls to police in Eastern Kazakhstan Province, where the case was reportedly opened, in order to try to find out more about it but got short shrift.

One policeman that answered the telephone told a correspondent he had "no right to divulge the secrets of the investigation."

"So I won't divulge, and you won't bother me," the policeman said, before hanging up.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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