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Millions Of Kazakhs Watch As Ex-Minister Goes On Trial For Wife's Brutal Death

Quandyq Bishimbaev and Saltanat Nurkenova at their wedding
Quandyq Bishimbaev and Saltanat Nurkenova at their wedding

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- "How can you say that? Unintended? You were beating her to death for several hours!"

Saltanat Nukenova's grief-stricken mother could not restrain herself after the man accused of killing her daughter -- a man who once served as Kazakhstan's economy minister -- attempted to explain his not-guilty plea to the court.

And she had to leave the courtroom when photos of her daughter's injuries -- sustained immediately prior to her death in November in a restaurant owned by the ex-minister's family -- were shown in court.

The judge in the case taking place in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, has forbidden the swelling press pack covering the trial from reproducing the images.

Journalists have also been told they cannot film or photograph members of the 10-member jury who, with the judge, will decide the fate of the wealthy businessman.

Those understandable restrictions aside, the trial of 43-year-old former Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev for the murder of his 31-year-old wife, Nukenova, has been digested in real time in a way without precedent in Kazakh history.

For millions of Kazakhs the courtroom proceedings streamed live by the Supreme Court and picked up by some of the country's largest online media has made for compulsive, if often harrowing, viewing.

'Portrait Of Our Political Elite'

Around 400 women die from domestic violence every year in Kazakhstan, according to UN Women, the United Nations agency for gender equality and the empowerment of women. Actual numbers may be even higher.

Yet for the moment, the public conversation around the trial is focused less on that broader trend and more on the behavior of the trial's main defendant.

When he was appointed economy minister in 2016, Bishimbaev was being put forward as the next generation of Kazakh officialdom: forward-thinking, patriotic, and polished by a stint in a U.S. university thanks to funding from Bolashaq, the Kazakh state scholarship program.

A favorite of first President Nursultan Nazarbaev, his firing just six months after his appointment and subsequent arrest on corruption charges registered as a minor earthquake within the political elite.

But he was pardoned under an amnesty initiated by Nazarbaev and, during the time that he might otherwise have spent in jail, divorced his previous wife and married Nukenova.

Bishimbaev's first proper address to the court on April 1 featured an apology to Nukenova's family, triggering her mother's outburst.

Bishimbaev appears in court in Astana on April 3.
Bishimbaev appears in court in Astana on April 3.

His position remains that he "caused her death" but did not intend it. After that explanation, he and his legal team repeatedly painted Nukenova as psychologically unstable and prone to violence, jealousy, and alcohol abuse.

Security camera footage from the November 9 incident shown to the court on April 3 shows Bishimbaev grabbing Nukenova by the hair, then punching and kicking her. He admitted there was even more violence in the bathroom, where there were no cameras.

But Bishimbaev claimed under oath that an out-of-control Nukenova fell on the toilet, causing the most severe of the blows that she sustained. He also disputed medical expertise that indicated that Nukenova had sustained at least a dozen individual blows to the head that night, ultimately causing her death.

None of the footage shown to the court shows Nukenova assaulting Bishimbaev.

On April 3, as Bishimbaev gave his account of the violence on that November morning, Nukenova's brother, Aitbek Amangeldi, appeared to be on the verge of sickness and the judge called for a pause in the proceedings.

But by then, another sensational headline had written itself after Bishimbaev acknowledged that with Nukenova still in a state of shock after the violence, he chose to phone a soothsayer that he had regularly consulted for advice instead of an ambulance.

"This person -- if you can call him such -- was our economy minister, friends!" vented Murat Daniyar, the host of the Jurttyn Balasy (Son of the People) podcast, one of several Kazakh bloggers who have dedicated multiple episodes of their YouTube shows to the trial.

"This is a portrait of our political elite!" he added.

Minister? Man-Child? Murderer?

Amangeldi has been responsible for some of the most surprising testimony provided to the court.

On March 29, he showed photos he said were sent to him by Nukenova after an earlier alleged incident of violence by Bishimbaev. They showed Nukenova with two black eyes and swollen lips.

Amangeldi said he and Bishimbaev had a fight on the night that he received the photos and recalled how Nukenova had elected to stay with Bishimbaev at their apartment and "save the marriage" rather than leave with her brother.

Bishimbaev said Amangeldi was drunk that night and attacked him with a knife, adding that he had not inflicted the bruises on his wife's face. That confrontation was in March 2023.

But Amangeldi, whose uncle is a former governor of the northern province of Pavlodar, testified to witnessing worrying behavior on Bishimbaev's part at a New Year's Eve dinner hosted by the Bishimbaev family.

During the dinner, Amangeldi said, Bishimbaev had a meltdown over the handing out of New Year's presents and stormed off after accusing his father of ruining his and his mother's life.

While Amangeldi said he made an early exit that night, he claimed a distraught Nukenova later phoned him to tell him that Bishimbaev had returned to the party and overturned the table where guests were sitting, still full of rage.

Bishimbaev has accused Amangeldi and other Nukenova relatives of organizing a "PR campaign" against him. But suggestions that Bishimbaev engaged in regular controlling behavior are harder to dismiss -- especially when the evidence comes from the defense.

In the hearing on April 8, Bishimbaev's lawyer read out a "statement" allegedly handwritten by Nukenova and addressed to Bishimbaev in which she promised to "regularly go to a psychologist, work on myself, work on my trust, be sincere, obedient, and respect Quandyq."

Furthermore, Nukenova purportedly promised to "pray together with Quandyq .. work on my consciousness, grow spiritually, and take care of my home and our love with the help of Allah."

If the alleged evidence was intended to be an indication of past wrongdoing on Nukenova's part, it fell flat. "That is the first time I have heard of a wife writing a husband something like that," remarked the trial's hard-nosed judge, Aizhan Kulbaeva, clearly surprised.

Nukenova's family lawyer Igor Vranchev immediately cast doubt on the veracity of the statement. "I would not be surprised if before the end of the proceedings we have another statement from Saltanat Nukenova, probably addressed to the court and jury [saying] that the toilet is to blame for everything," he said, in comments reported by the privately owned website Tengrinews.

'Saltanat's Law'

It is worth noting that many high-profile Kazakh trials lack these elements of courtroom drama precisely because they are taking place in Kazakhstan.

Lawyer Dzhokhar Utebekov argued in an April 5 commentary for Forbes Kazakhstan that in most trials the prosecution and judge work as a "tandem" in a judicial system in which acquittals are rare and independence sorely lacking.

Public and international interest in this trial has made business as usual impossible, Utebekov argued, resulting in a trial that is "correctly organized." But the more open process has also revealed the shortcomings of some of the trial's participants, the lawyer said, singling out the prosecutor for dropping the ball on more than one occasion.

Cynics have already argued that the courtroom show is a beneficial public distraction for the administration of President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

Bishimbaev, their argument runs, was an official from the era of Toqaev's predecessor, 83-year-old Nazarbaev -- a man whom the head of state now wants to distance himself from.

Then-Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev (left) meets with then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Then-Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev (left) meets with then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The trial is also taking place during Kazakhstan's worst floods this century -- a catastrophe that has necessitated more than 75,000 evacuations to date, while laying bare what the government admits was poor preparation.

But as other commentators with large online followings have countered, Kazakhstan's system has not changed enough for Bishimbaev not to be considered symbolic of it. That means that even a heavy sentence -- life imprisonment is possible only if the judge and the 10 jurors unanimously back the charge of "murder with particular cruelty" -- may not be enough to remove his stain on the body politic.

And the government is already facing another wave of public pressure to prove its commitment to preventing violence against women, via a new law fully criminalizing domestic violence.

Officials have said such a law is in the works after more than 150,000 signatories demanded amendments to the Criminal Code in the weeks after Nukenova's death. In a January interview with state media, Toqaev said he was "clearly and unequivocally" in favor of tougher penalties and called on society to show "zero tolerance" for domestic violence.

But a group of activists, recalling that the authorities have backtracked on a similar law in the past, have gone a step further, launching a letter-writing campaign to lawmakers, with more than 5,000 messages sent through the state portal.

The campaign was posted under a hashtag -- #ZakonSaltanat: Saltanat's law.

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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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