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The Kazakh Murder Trial That Captivated Russia

On Monday, the jury reached a verdict in a high-profile murder trial that has captivated millions of Russian-speakers in recent weeks: Kazakhstan’s former economy minister, Kuandyk Bishimbayev, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for torturing and murdering his wife, Saltanat Nukenova. CCTV footage played at the trial, the first in Kazakhstan’s history to be livestreamed, showed Bishimbayev hitting Nukenova, kicking her, and dragging her by the hair last November in the hallway of a restaurant owned by his family, hours before she was found dead the next morning.

The trial marks a rare moment when a member of the ruling elite has been held responsible for gender-based violence in Kazakhstan, where women’s rights activists have struggled to change conservative attitudes and secure legal protections from abuse. It has also fueled public outcry in Kazakhstan and demonstrations against domestic violence by the Kazakh diaspora in a number of countries, including the Czech RepublicGermany, and Poland. Even before the verdict, the case led Kazakhstan to adopt new legislation criminalizing forms of domestic violence.

More unusually, the case has become the object of intense fascination in neighboring Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has made conservative gender politics central to his regime and its global image. It has even spurred calls for change among Russian citizens and regional officials, which threaten to destabilize the Kremlin’s strategy of using so-called traditional values to consolidate power at home and abroad.

A FAVORITE OF former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the U.S.-educated Bishimbayev was expected by the country’s elite to help lead a promising new generation of officials. Instead, he served six months in office before being sentenced in 2018 to 10 years in prison on corruption charges. Nazarbayev pardoned him around 18 months into his sentence. After his release, Bishimbayev met Nukenova, a glamorous astrologer from a well-connected family. They celebrated their wedding in 2022 at Bau, the exclusive restaurant in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana that, less than a year later, would become the site of Nukenova’s murder.

In the early weeks of the trial, which began in late March, Bishimbayev pleaded not guilty; he alleged that his wife fell and banged her head against a toilet while drunk. His defense team depicted Nukenova to the jurors as a jealous, provocative woman who was the real aggressor. They heard a different story from Nukenova’s family and friends, who testified that they had seen her with extensive bruises and marks from choking; the evening before she was found dead, she told her brother that she was going to leave Bishimbayev. A medical examiner testified that the cause of death was severe brain trauma resulting from at least a dozen heavy blows as well as strangulation.

Later in the trial, Bishimbayev changed his story after videos from his phone were shown in court. On the livestream of the trial, Nukenova’s family members appeared stricken as they watched the videos, which were not visible to the public. They reportedly showed Bishimbayev torturing his wife for several hours; one family member fell ill and had to step out. After initially claiming that the videos were fake, Bishimbayev admitted to filming them and to causing her death, though he maintained that it was unintentional.

The trial and verdict mark a potential turning point not only for Kazakhstan’s approach to gender-based violence, but also for its relationship with Russia. Kazakhstan shares close ties with its northern neighbor—it’s bound to Moscow by security and trade agreements and depends on the country to export its oil through the Caspian pipeline—and has traditionally followed the Kremlin’s approach to social issues. After Russia partially decriminalized domestic violence in 2017, Kazakhstan followed suit: It decriminalized battery and the infliction of “minor” bodily harm, the two articles most frequently used to prosecute domestic violence in the country.

Such copycat legislation is encouraged by the Kazakh Union of Parents, a conservative organization that parrots official Russian rhetoric and opposes recriminalizing forms of domestic abuse. (Kazakhstan also proposed a law in 2015 that imitated Russia’s so-called gay propaganda law, which bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors, but the country’s highest court ruled it unconstitutional.)

After Nukenova’s murder, however, a petition calling for recriminalization gained 150,000 signatures. In response, Kazakhstan’s parliament passed legislation that returns domestic assault and abuse causing “minor” injuries to the criminal code, increases penalties for perpetrators, and adds new protections against the sexual harassment and kidnapping of children, though some activists have criticized its lack of provisions against the stalking or harassment of adults. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed the bill, known as Saltanat’s Law, on April 15.

In Russia, state television channels have covered the Bishimbayev trial without reference to domestic affairs, but regional media outlets have used it to lament the status quo in the country, where more than 70 percent of women murdered in 2020-21 were killed by their partners or relatives. For example, a segment about the trial by a TV news outlet in the city of Krasnoyarsk noted that reported incidents of domestic violence are rising in Russia and typically go unpunished until it’s too late, citing a local case in which a man murdered his partner and threw her body on a trash heap. The reporter spoke to locals who were following the events in Kazakhstan and wanted recriminalization in Russia, including Zinaida Pashchenko, a district administration employee.

Criticism has also spread on Russian social media. “For us, these Bishimbayevs are a dime a dozen, unfortunately,” comedian Ilya Sobolev observed, according to a Russian tabloid. Celebrity journalist-influencer Ksenia Sobchak, who flew to Astana to attend a court session in April, wrote approvingly on her Telegram channel about the “quiet revolution” underway in Kazakhstan; her YouTube documentary on the case has attracted more than 9 million views. The comments below this and other Russian YouTube videos analyzing the trial are flooded with personal stories of abuse.

After the passage of Saltanat’s Law, Sardana Gureva, the ombudsman for human rights in the Russian region of Yakutia, called on Moscow to act accordingly and guarantee greater protections for those facing domestic violence—a policy that 79 percent of Russians support, according to a 2020 poll by the independent Levada Center.

But top officials have no interest in changing the law. Nina Ostanina, the chair of the State Duma’s committee on family, women, and children, recently suggested that Russia doesn’t need such legislation; women can avoid abuse, she said, by marrying for love rather than “chasing after a sugar daddy.”

Officials have a compelling reason not to punish domestic violence: In today’s Russia, intimate abuse normalizes brutality in the country’s war in Ukraine and vice versa. Kremlin allies downplay and deny both: A Russian medical examiner employed by Bishimbayev’s defense team—who suggested, without examining her body, that Nukenova died of natural causes—has also appeared on Russian TV claiming that photos of corpses in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, the site of a well-documented civilian massacre, were staged. War propaganda entreats men to display aggression on behalf of the state. Last spring, the Russian Defense Ministry released an ad for military service featuring passive men with lowly jobs who transform into buff soldiers bearing automatic rifles. “You’re a man,” the tagline declares. “So be one.” Sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians brings the macho rhetoric to life.

Meduza, an independent Russia media outlet, has reported that the Kremlin has instructed the media not to cover crimes committed by soldiers who have returned from the war, whom Putin heralds as Russia’s “true elite.” Nevertheless, stories about acts of domestic violence carried out by soldiers circulate widely through social media, local news sites, and tabloids. They include the case of Alexander Mamaev, who volunteered to fight in Ukraine and murdered his wife in front of their children when he came back.

There are also well-publicized accounts of the state releasing men who were incarcerated for killing their partners to serve at the front, then granting them amnesty upon their return. After Vadim Tekhov, a former police officer who stabbed his ex-wife to death in 2019, fought for six months in Ukraine in a prisoner combat unit, he was freed and pardoned; in May 2023, his ex-wife’s parents were shocked to hear that he’d been spotted on the street in Vladikavkaz, the city where he killed their daughter.

Despite widespread domestic abuse, the Kremlin strives to maintain a veneer of normalcy. Putin has declared 2024 “the year of the family” as part of his pro-natalist campaign amid Russia’s demographic crisis. The state has also backed “Family: The World’s Foundation,” a project that has put up billboards and posters across the country displaying images of smiling parents and children with the slogan, “It’s important to be together.”

Anna Rivina, a Russian lawyer who runs, a domestic violence support organization that Moscow has labeled a “foreign agent,” said that Russians are not fooled by official rhetoric: “People see it’s not true, and they’re afraid.”

Rivina estimated that up to 10 percent of the calls that receives from Russia’s provinces concern abuse that is committed by soldiers or otherwise connected to the war; for example, she described a case in which, just after the full-scale invasion began, a man kicked his longtime partner, who was Ukrainian, out of their home.

The real number of war-related incidents may be higher, as people experiencing abuse can be reluctant to come forward about a so-called zashchitnik, or “defender.” After a former fighter with the mercenary Wagner Group beat his ex-wife so badly that she spent weeks in the hospital, he brought his medals from the battle of Bakhmut to court and received only a fine of around $50.

KAZAKHSTAN’S DEPARTURE from the Russian template of enabling abuse is indicative of the Kremlin’s waning influence in Central Asia. “Reputationally, Russia is not a leading opinion maker,” said Leyla Zuleikha Makhmudova, a gender and security expert from Kazakhstan.

The invasion of Ukraine has severely damaged Russia’s status as a role model in the region. In Kazakhstan, polls indicate that a majority of people now blame Russia for the war and disapprove of Russia’s influence abroad. Makhmudova said that the war has also led to increased cooperation within Central Asia regarding areas such as border issues and women’s rights as feminists share information about laws and best practices in their countries and try to formulate a common strategy. Saltanat’s Law was preceded by similar legislation in Uzbekistan, which criminalized domestic violence in 2023 after persistent campaigning by feminist groups.

Amid this shift in public opinion, Tokayev is wary of appearing overly reliant on the Kremlin, which helped him stay in power when protests threatened his rule in 2022. Saltanat’s Law offered an opportunity to demonstrate his administration’s independence and responsiveness to public concern.

Still, Kazakhstan has a long way to go in the fight for gender equality. Tokayev’s government has displayed hostility toward feminist activists. For instance, Dina Smailova, head of the organization NeMolchi.KZ, faces an embezzlement case that she claims is politically motivated, and in the city of Almaty, officials recently denied activists permission to hold a rally in Nukenova’s honor. Kazakhstan’s leadership also continues to mimic Moscow’s hostility to the LGBTQ+ community. A few weeks before he signed Saltanat’s Law, Tokayev approved a bill forbidding queer people from adopting children or serving as their guardians. Russia banned the adoption of children by foreign same-sex couples in 2013 and later outlawed the “international LGBT social movement,” describing it as “extremist,” in November 2023.

Despite these mixed messages, for many Russians who watched the trial, Kazakhstan offers the hope of accountability that, at least for now, seems impossible where they live. The response to events across the border suggests that many Russians have not fallen for the state’s projection of familial harmony. At a time when direct dissent is illegal, criticizing domestic abuse challenges the personal and political violence on which Putin’s order rests.

Source: FP