A Kyrgyz man detained in a village outside Almaty and paraded on television confessing to taking money to participate in the unrest in Kazakhstan has been released after a public outcry in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz citizens, seeing the broadcast, identified the man not as an unemployed protester-for-hire but as well-known jazz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov.
The bizarre story illustrates a wider set of concerns as the Kazakh government claims to have arrested nearly 8,000 people in the wake of a week of chaos in Kazakhstan.
The internet in Kazakhstan remains heavily restricted, with access seemingly limited to the morning hours local time in Almaty and larger windows of time elsewhere. This has the effect of limiting the sharing of information by any sources other than the government, which is now pushing a remarkable narrative peopled by “sleeper cells” of foreign-trained terrorists.
In a speech on January 10 to an emergency session of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which has deployed troops for the first time ever as an organization to Kazakhstan, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev doubled down on a familiar narrative: That the violence seen in Almaty was the result of “Religious radicals, criminals, outright thugs, looters and petty hooligans” who “filled the streets as if on cue” after the demands of peaceful protesters had been met by the government. “I can tell you in all certainty that terrorists, including foreign fighters, were directly involved in the aggression against Kazakhstan,” he also said, pushing the plot off a steep cliff in continuing: “It was not a coincidence that the criminals attacked morgues at night to collect and drive away with the corpses of their dead accomplices. They also took the corpses of fighters from the battlefield.”
This fantastical account is not supported by available reporting, only by government statements. Here is where Ruzakhunov’s detention, identification, and release is illustrative. If you say, as Tokayev has, that there were 20,000 terrorists who attacked Kazakhstan, the state has to arrest somebody to make the story even passably plausible.
On January 9, Kazakh television station Khabar 24 showed a video of man, with a puffy, cut, and bruised face, confessing to having taken $200 and a plane ticket to travel to Kazakhstan to protest. The man says he is unemployed in the video.
But those hooked into Bishkek’s small but mighty jazz scene recognized the man as a well-known jazz pianist who frequently traveled to Almaty for concerts. Ruzakhunov’s family told Kyrgyz media that Ruzakhunov had traveled to Almaty on January 2 for a concert.
Steve Swerdlow, now an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California, previously lived and worked in Bishkek for Human Rights Watch. Swerdlow, himself a jazz pianist, said that “Vikram had a special status among us musicians and his frequent invitations to Almaty – a city with much larger venues and better-paying gigs – was a reflection of how much in demand he was for his incredible talent.”
Swerdlow told The Diplomat, “My jaw simply dropped when I saw the video of him speaking after an obviously forced confession, and I contacted several other jazz musicians in Bishkek to verify it was him.”
The authorities then said it wasn’t Ruzakhunov in the video but another Kyrgyz man, Zakir Uburov. But the brother of the real Zakir Yuburov (a misspelling of his name was used by Kazakh media initially, thus the difference here) told Kyrgyz media Zakir been detained on his way home from Friday prayers in Almaty, where he’s lived for the past year and a half, but was not the man in the video.
Kyrgyz authorities complained to the Kazakh authorities about the arrest and treatment of Kyrgyz citizens, with the head of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiyev, calling Ruzakhunov’s arrest “offensive.” Tashiyev made an appearance at a rally outside the Kazakh Embassy in Bishkek to speak to protesters and journalists there, stating, “It is wrong to accuse our citizens of terrorism.”
On January 10, Ruzakhunov was released and returned to Kyrgyzstan. He said after returning that he’d made his “confession” after being told that if he confessed he’d just be deported. Ruzakhunov said he had not been tortured but was injured when Kazakh police arrested him.
“What Vikram’s detention unfortunately makes clear is that Kazakhstan’s police and security services, especially in the heat of a crackdown, are wasting no time committing widespread human rights violations in the identification, arrest, detention and interrogation of those they suspect of taking part in the protests, or at worse, are fabricating cases against persons where there is no evidence of a connection to a crime at the behest of higher-ranking officials,” Swerdlow told The Diplomat.
Swerdlow stressed that there “is an urgent need for Kazakh authorities to ensure that due process rights of thousands of detainees are respected, such as the access to independent counsel, the right to contact their relatives, and most importantly the right to be free of torture.”
Furthermore, Swerdlow said, Ruzakhunov’s ordeal “shows that now more than ever Kazakhstan’s international partners must insist on local civil society activists and journalists’ right to conduct their work free of intimidation and interference. In many ways, their involvement in these processes could have avoided bloodshed and avoided the catastrophe we are currently witnessing.”
With the Kazakh government now claiming to have detained almost 8,000 people it has to be asked: Who are these people, and how many Vikram Ruzakhunovs are there among them?