Kazakh court jails former minister for 24 years for brutal murder of wife

<span>Members of the Kazakh diaspora and activists hold banners at a 'Justice for Saltanat' rally in Krakow, Poland, 21 April 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images</span>
Members of the Kazakh diaspora and activists hold banners at a 'Justice for Saltanat' rally in Krakow, Poland, 21 April 2024.Photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images

A former Kazakh government minister has been sentenced to 24 years in prison for the torture and murder of his wife in one of the most high-profile cases of domestic violence in Kazakhstan’s history.

Kuandyk Bishimbayev, 44, was shown in surveillance footage repeatedly beating Saltanat Nukenova, 31, after they quarrelled in a restaurant he owned in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, in November 2023. A forensic examination later found evidence of strangulation.

The murder and horrifying details of the case prompted a national outcry, with millions watching live broadcasts from the trial on YouTube before this week’s guilty verdict. The case shone a spotlight on the high levels of femicide in Kazakhstan, where the UN estimates about 400 women die from domestic violence every year.

Bishimbayev admitted beating his wife, but denied the charge of murder. Aitbek Amangeldy, Nukenova’s brother, said that when the family went to pick up her possessions, one of Bishimbayev’s sisters had said: “You will not prove his guilt. You will not succeed.”

Bishimbayev was a former economy minister, known to be close to former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan for three decades until stepping aside in early 2022. In 2018, Bishimbayev was sentenced to 10 years in jail for corruption, but was released a year later and pardoned by Nazarbayev.

Bishimbayev was detained after the murder, but some media outlets launched an information war against Nukenova. Reports circulated on Telegram channels that she was on medication and mentally unstable, claims rubbished by her family.

“Justice in Kazakhstan is like this – instead of experiencing your grief with your family, you run all over the country to prove that my sister was killed, that she is a victim,” said Amangeldy, in an interview in the family’s home town of Pavlodar before the start of the trial.

Amangeldy said his parents had not been happy about Nukenova’s decision to marry a man who had been married twice before and had a conviction for fraud, but they accepted her choice. Nukenova and Bishimbayev married in December 2022.

From the start, Bishimbayev was violent towards Nukenova, said Amangeldy, and in early 2023, she sent her brother photographs of bruises, apparently caused by Bishimbayev, and asked him to save them, as she was scared of keeping them on her phone.

After Nukenova’s murder, an online petition calling on the Kazakh authorities to toughen penalties for domestic violence against women and children gained more than 150,000 signatures in a few weeks. Before and during the trial, many people expressed scepticism that justice would be done, citing the country’s issues with corruption.

Kristina, a 21-year-old student in Pavlodar, said: “I want to believe in justice. But I know that he was tried and released. In our country, the law is for the rich and powerful. It all depends on us, the society. I signed the petition, as did all my friends.”

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Nukenova’s relatives are sure that without the public outcry, they would not have been able to achieve justice.

“The case has acquired a political context because of the [prominence] of the suspect. He is one of the key politicians of the country and a protege of the former president,” said Zhanna Urazbakhova, the lawyer representing Nukenova’s family.

“In 24 years he will be 68. This is practically a life sentence,” said Amangeldy after the announcement of the final verdict.

In April, president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev agreed to toughen penalties in cases of violence against women and children. Domestic violence had been decriminalised in 2017. Saltanat’s Law, as it has come to be called, will come into force on 15 June.

Campaigners welcome the changes, but also believe they are too little and too late. “A woman’s life in Kazakhstan is not as valuable as a man’s life,” said activist Aigerim Kusayin Kyzy at a recent press conference. “Why did Saltanat Nukenova have to die for the public to pay attention to femicide?”