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Long Prison Term for Aspirational Kazakh Opposition Leader

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Long Prison Term for Aspirational Kazakh Opposition Leader

Nurzhan Altaev was given a 10-year sentence earlier this month, and another opposition leader, Marat Zhylanbaev, is expected to see a similar sentence soon.

Long Prison Term for Aspirational Kazakh Opposition Leader
Credit: Depositphotos

Less than a month after pulling a pair of trials against aspirational opposition party leaders behind closed doors, a court in Kazakhstan sentenced one to 10 years. The other faces a similar fate.

On November 21, a court in Astana sentenced Nurzhan Altaev, the leader of the unregistered El Tiregi party (which in Kazakh literally means “Support of the Nation”), to 10 years in prison after finding him guilty of taking bribes when he was a deputy labor minister five years ago. In addition to the 10 year prison term, Altaev was banned for life from holding a public position and ordered to repay the alleged bribe, more than 50 million tenge (more than $108,000) in addition to fines for a victims fund and court costs.

I summarized Altaev’s recent political history earlier this month:

Altaev is a former Mazhilis deputy, of the erstwhile Nur Otan party, and leader of the unregistered El Tiregi party. El Tiregi (which in Kazakh means “Support of the Nation”) was formed as public association in 2019 aimed at influencing Nur Otan (renamed in 2022 to Amanat), but in 2020 Altaev broke with the ruling party and started out on his own. 

In June 2023, Kazakhstan’s anti-corruption service said Altaev was a suspect in the case of Ablay Myrzakhmetov, the former head of the Atameken National Chamber of Entrepreneurs, a business lobby with close ties to Timur Kulibayev, the husband of one of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughters. Myrzakhmetov was detained in May on suspicion of soliciting a nearly $30 million bribe. The authorities allege that Altaev in 2018-2020 was “acting in the interests of Myrzakhmetov, [and] contributed to his organization… and provided general patronage.” At that time, Altaev was a deputy in the Mazhilis and vice minister of labor and social protection.

After the trial ended, Altaev’s lawyer, Nursultan Ermakhanov, told RFE/RL that “[a]round 90 percent of [the defense’s] motions were ignored. The process was pushed through at the speed of light. When the press found out that the prosecution wanted a 12-year sentence for Altaev, the judge even threatened to file for the suspension of our lawyer’s license. This was hardly information that needed to be kept secret.” 

Ermakhanov went on to tell RFE/RL that soon after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the snap presidential election set for November 2022, top administration officials invited “Altaev to a sit-down where he was asked to rule himself out of the election, with El Tiregi’s legal registration thrown in as a sweetener.” The meeting, Ermakhanov claimed to RFE/RL,was brokered by former Ata-Meken party head Ablai Myrzhakhmetov, who would later become the chief witness – even while under investigation himself – at the former deputy labor minister’s bribe-taking trial.”

Altaev refused and was excluded from the presidential election in which Tokayev was re-elected with 81.3 percent of the vote against a field of political nobodies.

Prosecutors in the parallel case of Marat Zhylanbaev, the leader of the unregistered “Alga, Kazakhstan!” party, have asked for the famous marathon runner-turned-politician to be given 10 years on charges of “involvement in a banned organization” and “financing the activities of an extremist organization,” allegedly for contact with Mukhtar Ablyazov, founder of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party, which Astana branded an extremist organization in 2018

According to Human Rights Watch, which reviewed the indictment against Zhylanbaev, the authorities “present as evidence of Zhylanbaev’s crimes his participation in unsanctioned protests and allegedly carrying out ‘instructions’ from members of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK)… Kazakh authorities also claim in the indictment that two wire transfers Zhylanbaev made in February 2023 – in the amounts of 500,000 Tenge (about US$1,075) and 707,000 Tenge (about US$1,520) – constitute evidence of financing ‘extremist’ activities because they were made to people that are ‘supporters’ of DVK. The indictment cites no other evidence of Zhylanbaev financing ‘extremism.’”

Zhylanbaev’s lawyer, Meyirzhan Doskaraev, however, told HRW that the transfer were made to support the campaigns of independent candidates in the March 2023 parliamentary elections and denied that either was member of the DVK.

On November 28, Doskaraev told RFE/RL that Zhylanbaev had delivered a 2-hour closing statement in court.

“He spoke very well, said the right things. He provided evidence [of his innocence]. He said that he had been persecuted politically since 2016, since he began participating in rallies,” Doskaraev said. Journalists and the public were barred from the court, as reported earlier, with officials citing concern for the safety of witnesses. 

It’s worth thinking on what Ermakhanov, Altaev’s lawyer, told RFE/RL about his client’s closed trial: That it was necessary so the authorities “wouldn’t look stupid in front of all of Kazakhstan.”

Tokayev first took power under the wing and with the permission of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 2019. After the January 2022 unrest, he arguably stepped out from Nazarbayev’s shadow. All along Tokayev has pledged his would be a “listening state” and that the “new” Kazakhstan was a “fair” Kazakhstan. 

What these cases demonstrate, however, is a reluctance to face the reality that listening sometimes means hearing what one does not want to hear. And fairness means allowing opponents to mount a serious challenge, and facing the possibility of losing against them.