The Murder Trial of a Former Minister in Kazakhstan Has Gripped the Region

Kuandyk Bishimbayev assumed he could kill his wife with impunity, but the case has fueled demands for better protection of women’s rights

The Murder Trial of a Former Minister in Kazakhstan Has Gripped the Region
Members of Kazakhstan’s diaspora demand justice for Saltanat Nukenova at a rally in Krakow in April 2024. (Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty)

In November of last year, in the busy center of Astana, the showcase capital city of Kazakhstan, a high-profile murder took place. Kuandyk Bishimbayev, Kazakhstan’s former minister of national economy, beat his young wife to death in a restaurant owned by his family. Sultanat Nukenova was so badly wounded that the women who washed her body ahead of burial described being terrified by the gashes and bruises they saw, according to her uncle.

Since then, the country and the surrounding region have been fascinated by the case of the 44-year-old ex-government official, who was detained on the day her body was found. Millions of Russian speakers from across Central Asia to Moscow tuned in for the trial, one of Kazakhstan’s first to be televised live, which culminated last week when Bishimbayev was handed 24 years behind bars for torture and murder, a rare prison sentence for a perpetrator of domestic abuse.

The case has sparked public outcry in Kazakhstan, and even helped activists secure greater legal protections against abuse. According to court documents, 31-year-old Nukenova, a self-taught astrologist, spent her final hours in the back of the restaurant before an ambulance came the next morning, when they declared her dead at the scene. The restaurant’s CCTV footage had been deleted on an order from Bishimbayev, and his fingerprints and blood were not found at the scene. At the court hearing on May 13, Bishimbayev’s cousin Bakhytzhan Baizhanov was also found guilty for helping cover up the murder.

Nukenova’s family only learned she had died when they saw the news. Then began their exhausting fight for justice and truth in a country dogged by long-standing issues of corruption, nepotism and impunity of high-ranking officials. Some have seen the trial as a test for the rule of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who has promised to build a fairer society since coming to power five years ago. In recent years, several members of the political elite were given jail terms for corruption and embezzlement, only for them to be later reduced or reversed, fueling public distrust of the legal system.

Most of the country’s press, which is dominated by state-owned and pro-government outlets, covered the trial matter-of-factly, but Kazakh bloggers painted Nukenova as a drunkard with mental health issues. Her brother Aitbek Amangeldi, 36, told New Lines that his sister’s memory was “being denigrated, she was simply being presented to the public as a dishonest person with a bad reputation.” He and other family members decided the best way to battle this was to be as open and transparent as possible in speaking to the media. This was the only way to stop the case being “closed or hushed up.” Somewhat surprisingly, Bishimbayev also wanted an open trial, several people familiar with the matter told New Lines. According to a member of the victim’s legal team, the former minister assumed he would get away with it — and also be exonerated by the court of public opinion — because he was a government official and therefore essentially unreachable by the law. In court, Bishimbayev explained his wife’s injuries by saying she was drunk and fell on the toilet.

But this approach backfired. “It became a high-profile case because of this profound cynicism and impunity,” said Zhanna Urazbakhova, one of the lawyers representing Nukenova.

The jury trial against Bishimbayev and Baizhanov began on March 27, exclusively in the Russian language. By law, anyone can apply for a trial to be conducted in Russian, which the political elite often speak better than their native tongue of Kazakh. Being in Russian also brought the trial many millions more eyeballs.

It was streamed on YouTube, becoming so popular across the Russian-speaking world that it often felt like a surreal reality TV show. Kazakhs watching the trial in the global diaspora staged numerous protests in European and U.S. cities, demanding justice for victims of domestic violence, while inside Kazakhstan, where demonstrators must receive the green light from officials to go ahead with protests, permits were denied.

The details of Nukenova’s final moments were shocking. Restored CCTV footage shows Bishimbayev hitting and kicking Nukenova and dragging her by the hair through the restaurant’s hallway. Video taken from Bishimbayev’s own phone was even more horrific: As he beat her, he asked her dozens of times if she had cheated on him with a businessman. He also sexually assaulted her and filmed her naked. Only Nukenova’s family, the defense and the judge could view the footage, but the court was allowed to hear the audio. As it played, some in the room began to weep.

While Kazakhs were forbidden from protesting, at least 150,000 people rushed to sign a petition demanding better protections for women from abuse. In mid-April, even before the verdict, Kazakhstan adopted new legislation criminalizing forms of domestic violence. It was dubbed “Saltanat’s law” after Nukenova and will come into force next month.

“This is a very rare case in the history of Kazakhstan when a victim becomes the face of a serious campaign,” said Dina Smailova, head of the nongovernmental organization NeMolchi.kz, which helps Kazakhstani victims of domestic violence (it means “do not be silent” in Russian.) Perpetrators rarely get punished in Kazakhstan, due to the country’s “high level of corruption, high level of nepotism, high level of certain influence by management on the outcome of a criminal case,” Smailova told New Lines from Montenegro, where she lives under protection. Kazakhstani authorities accused her of embezzlement, charges that Human Rights Watch has said are designed to discredit her work.

The trial fascinated those in Russia, where some forms of domestic violence were decriminalized in a 2017 ruling by President Vladimir Putin, with support from the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian bloggers actively covered the trial, with some drawing comparisons between Kazakhstan and Russia, and questioning which country was more progressive. Others turned to Islamophobic rhetoric and blamed Kazakhstan’s high rate of domestic violence on the fact it is a majority-Muslim nation, while ignoring Russia’s own alarming figures for partner abuse. According to numbers from U.N. Women, up to 400 women die from domestic abuse every year in Kazakhstan, a country of almost 20 million. In Russia, a country with seven times the population, a woman is believed by rights activists to be killed by her partner every 40 minutes.

A livestreamed trial of a former minister in a neighboring country was captivating for Russians, whose government is sliding deeper into authoritarianism as its war in Ukraine shows no signs of abating. The war has allowed the Kremlin to increase its repression of the population, essentially banning all forms of opposition and independent media. Any whisper of dissent is now met with potential jail terms.

Influencer and journalist Ksenia Sobchak flew to Astana to witness the trial, where she sat in the courtroom dressed in black and wearing sunglasses. On her YouTube channel, her 80-minute dispatch on the case gained more than 9 million views. Sobchak, who has dabbled in politics at home and whose powerful father Anatoly was an early mentor to Putin, described Kazakhstan as stepping away from Russia’s orbit and closer to Western countries. “This kind of diplomacy is truly admirable. … Bankers from London will not come here if there are medieval laws,” she told the camera, referring to Kazakhstan’s new legislation against domestic violence.

Sobchak’s words also felt like veiled criticism of the Kremlin, which is increasingly financially and politically isolated from the world. She heaped praise on Kazakhstan for allowing her into the courtroom. “As a person who knows the Russian courts well, this kind of attitude was astonishing,” she said. (This treatment surprised Kazakhs as well — local journalists who were not given access complained that Sobchak was given special treatment).

Natalia Grace, another Russian blogger with almost 1 million followers on YouTube, took a different tack and interviewed Bishimbayev’s parents. They blamed the victim for being a good wife for “only one month.” In return, Russian influencer Katya Konasova made her own video, in which she called Grace’s interview both “scandalous” and “provocative.”

Later, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Grace did not apply for official media accreditation in Kazakhstan, while Sobchak was accredited. It is unclear whether Grace was paid. Her interview brought so much negative reaction from Kazakhs for supporting the Bishimbayevs that she eventually turned off the comments section on her YouTube channel.

Bloggers are not the only Russian connections to the trial. Bishimbayev’s legal team hired two Russian forensic examiners who suggested that Nukenova did not die from physical violence, but an old injury. One of those men had previously gone on Russian television to accuse Ukrainians of staging the Bucha massacre in Ukraine in the early days of Russia’s invasion. Luckily for Nukenova’s team, the Astana court did not take the men’s suggestions into account because they had not examined her body.

In Russia, officials who fall foul of Putin — rare though that is — are punished, but members of the political elite are seldom put on trial for things that are considered personal and unrelated to politics or finance, if at all.

Bishimbayev was clearly convinced he was also free from such reproach. He was widely viewed as a golden boy close to former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was the first to rule the independent country once it broke free from the Soviet Union over three decades ago. Bishimbayev studied at George Washington University in the United States and later became one of Kazakhstan’s youngest ministers in 2016. But this only lasted half a year — he was arrested on corruption charges and found guilty and sentenced to 10 years. Nazarbayev then pardoned him in 2019, and he walked free on parole, which is why many Kazakhs assumed he would also escape proper punishment for killing Nukenova.

“He was confident in his charm and ability to manipulate,” said Igor Vranchev, another lawyer for Nukenova’s team. Throughout the trial, Bishimbayev was calm and spoke in a measured, persuasive voice, explaining how his wife took to alcohol and was mentally unstable. He told the court that after she “fell asleep,” he called a fortune teller who told him she would be fine.

He later divorced his second wife and met Saltanat in 2022. Last year, she became his third wife. The wedding took place in the same restaurant in which she was beaten to death. Nukenova was described by many who knew her as a loving, gentle and kind woman.

On May 15, two days after Bishimbayev and his cousin were found guilty, Nukenova would have turned 32 years old. For many, she became a symbol of the fight for women’s rights. Female artists donated drawings to the newly created Saltanat Foundation that her brother set up to help victims of domestic violence fight for justice, a female alpinist dedicated her climb of Mount Elbrus in Russia to Saltanat, poems have been written in her memory and her photos and videos are circulated all over social media.

The verdict was welcomed by the public, though some activists were disappointed because they expected a life sentence for Bishimbayev. Serik Beyssembayev, a sociologist and a director of PaperLab Public Policy Research Center in Astana, described the trial as a “catalyst of social changes that have long been evident” in the country.

Beyond the new law providing recourse for domestic violence victims, there have also been reverberations in the wider political world. Earlier this month, Karina Mamash, the wife of a Kazakhstani diplomat in the United Arab Emirates, said that her husband Saken Mamash has been raping and beating her for the past decade. Shortly after she released a video showing her bruises, which went viral, Karina flew home to Kazakhstan and is now in a crisis center for women. A criminal case was filed against her husband on May 10.

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