oDR: Feature

Hundreds died in Kazakhstan’s ‘Bloody January’. Who were they?

In partnership with Kazakh media Vlast, we tell the stories of those who were killed or injured – some of whom are still missing – in the violence

Yuna Korosteleva Almas Kaisar Nazerke Kurmangazinova Olga Loginova Tamara Vaal Dmitriy Mazorenko
27 January 2022, 3.59pm
6 January: Almaty after violence rocked the city
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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Late on the evening of 15 January, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Kazakhstan released an important figure: 225.

This, prosecutors state, is the number of people who were killed or wounded during the protests and violence that shook the country between 2 and 10 January, after a fuel price rise brought thousands of people out onto the streets. The protests ended in violence, looting, the arrival of Russian troops and a state of emergency around the country.

Communications and internet in Kazakhstan were switched off midway through the protests. It took prosecutors ten days after the start of the protests to publish information about casualties. The majority of people died in Almaty, the country’s commercial capital, which during the protests quickly became an epicentre of violence. Later, the total number of deaths was increased to 227.

In the meantime, Kazakhstani human rights activists, activists and journalists collected and published information about people who had died, were injured or were detained during what became known as ‘Bloody January’. The list of people reporting that Kazakhstani security forces had used brutal violence against detainees quickly began to grow.

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Within a few days, journalists at Vlast, an independent media organisation in the country, were able to use various lists that were circulating to confirm the names of 63 people who died: 46 civilians and 17 law enforcement officers. The names of these people were made public by Kazakhstani government agencies shortly after.

Here, Vlast tells the stories of Kazakhstani citizens who died or reported torture by law enforcement. As part of openDemocracy’s partnership with Vlast, we offer an updated translation of their original article.

Fight for names

Human rights defenders and civic activists began to publish the names of the dead and injured as soon as the internet came back online in Kazakhstan after the violence subsided. But they had begun collecting them even earlier.

One human rights activist, Bakytzhan Toregozhina, said that her list of victims and detainees was drawn up using information gained through online polls, appeals from activists, relatives and publications in the media.

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5 January: Almaty
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Image: Almas Kaisar

On 11 January, The Village, an online Kazakhstani media, began compiling lists of missing people, based on information sent to them by readers. Within five days, the publication had received 46 reports of missing people, some of whom had since been found. Volunteers from different cities also updated lists and conducted searches for missing persons. One group of volunteers in Almaty said they received hundreds of missing person reports after the protests.

In efforts to summarise this information, a website – named ‘Qantar’ after the Kazakh word for January – was set up to collate information on people injured, detained or killed. By 16 January, there were 519 people on the list.

By speaking to relatives, friends and rights activists, Vlast has identified the circumstances of death for the following people.

Those who died

On the evening of 7 January, two Almaty residents, Kuat Bitkenbaev, 73, and Gulzifa Kulsultanova, 64, were driving home from visiting their relatives. By coincidence, Bitkenbaev and Kulsultanova had taken part in the last major protests in Kazakhstan, some 35 years ago, when thousands of people came out in the first mass demonstration of the Perestroika period in 1986.

Near Republic Square, an open space at the heart of the city, Bitkenbaev and Kulsultanova’s car came under automatic fire and was set alight. The couple did not have time to unfasten their seat belts, and they died in the fire.

Their son found the remains of his parents the following day.

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Kuat Bitkenbaev and Gulzifa Kulsultanov | Source: Facebook

Nuraliya Aitkulova, a civic activist, was among protesters in Almaty’s Republic Square, the day before, on 6 January. At around 7pm that day, two bullets hit Aitkulova in the chest, and she died shortly after. The identification of her body, according to two of Aitkulova’s nieces, took place at gunpoint. Aitkulova is survived by her daughter.

On the same day and in the same city, activist Aslan Ualiyev was shot in the head and chest. Days later, on 10 January, Ualiyev’s brother Darkhan Ualiyev, also a civil activist, was detained near the city morgue, where he was looking for Aslan’s body. Ualiyev was taken to the Almaty city police station, after which contact with him was lost. According to Darkhan’s wife, only a state-appointed lawyer is permitted to visit him. Darkhan’s relatives believe that he has been charged with terrorism offences.

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Nuraliya Aitkulova, Aslan Ualiyev, Aitbai Aliyev | Sources: Instagram, Facebook

The body of activist Aitbai Aliyev was found by his son Artur in the morgue in the town of Kyzylorda on 9 January. According to his family, Aliyev was detained by police on 5 January. On the same day, he was taken to intensive care, and on 6 January Aliyev’s body was delivered to the morgue. His son found large scars on his father’s head.

Almas Garifullin, together with his friend Alexander, owned a grocery store in Almaty. Their shop continued to operate during the January protests, providing local residents with necessary goods. On the evening of 6 January, the two men went out to refuel their car in order to buy groceries for the store the next morning. At the intersection of Ryskulov Avenue and Akhrimenko Street, not far from the gas station, the car in front of them made a sharp U-turn, after which shots were fired. A bullet hit Almas in the shoulder. He died on the way to the hospital.

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Almas Garifullin | Source: Instagram

On the evening of 5 January, Sultan Kamshybek, 12, went to an Almaty grocery store with his mother, uncle and aunt. A few minutes later, shooting began. The boy thought that someone was launching fireworks and started filming them. Unknown persons shot Sultan in the back of the head. His family managed to provide first aid and even restore the child’s breathing, and then took him to the hospital. Sultan could not be saved.

On 8 January, a family of three was shot dead in Taldykorgan, a town to the north of Almaty. According to the victims’ family, at around 8.30pm, husband and wife Nurbolat Seitkulov and Altynai Etaeva, as well as their 15-year-old daughter Nurai, were driving home from visiting friends.

On this day, the curfew in the city began to operate from 8pm, but relatives believe that the family did not know this – the notification about the change in the curfew time was made late. Unknown persons opened fire on the vehicle, killing those inside. These deaths are currently under investigation.

Yerlan Zhagiparov, an archaeologist famous for hunting petroglyphs, disappeared on 6 January at around 7pm somewhere in or near Republic Square. Soon after, relatives and numerous friends began asking for information on social media. On 12 January, relatives received news that Zhagiparov’s body was in the Almaty city morgue: his brother, Nurland, had reportedly found him in a corridor, handcuffed, brutally beaten and shot in the chest. According to his brother, Nurlan, In the same corridor, Nurlan saw the bodies of many other unidentified people. Zhagiparov was 49 years old.

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Yerlan Zhagiparov | Source: Facebook

On 6 January, Islam Torebek, a 21-year-old student, went out with a friend to buy groceries in the western city of Zhanaozen. Due to the internet shutdown, they had no idea which parts of the city would be dangerous , and so they set off to look for a shop that was open. Torebek came under fire and died shortly thereafter. He was a fifth-year student at the Almaty University of Energy and Communications, and was preparing to defend his thesis.

On 7 January, Babakhan Zholbaryskhanuly, also 21, was shot dead near a residential complex on Raiymbek Avenue. He was a native of the Turkestan region and had previously completed military service in Kazakhstan’s National Guard. That day, Babakhan left his apartment to take out the garbage. As he approached the bin, three police cars pulled up next to him. According to his father, several people dressed in military uniforms got out of the car and opened fire. Babakhan was wounded in the heart, others who were nearby managed to hide behind a garbage can. The young man was refused hospitalisation in several clinics before being taken to the central city clinical hospital. He died a few hours later.

On 5 January, Almaz Berekenov, 35, was shot dead behind the building of the regional administration in Atyrau, in western Kazakhstan. According to his relatives, Berekenov read namaz, but did not follow any radical religious movements. At lunch, after he finished work, he went to the city mosque and then joined protesters in the city square. He stood on the edge of the crowd, holding the national flag in his hands. That evening, his brother received a call from the city morgue and was told that Almaz’s body was in the institution. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. Almaz worked as a head engineer in a computer equipment maintenance company and was fond of singing.

Yerasyl Kalykula, 25, was shot dead on 5 January during a protest in Shymkent. He was hospitalised after receiving a gunshot wound to the stomach, but doctors could not save him. The man’s family have still not been able to find out the circumstances of his death.

On 6 January, cameraman and hip-hop artist Saken Bitayev was killed in Almaty. Bitaev had been driving with friends when they were stopped and asked to get out of the car. After he refused, the unknown men opened fire, and a bullet hit Bitaeyv in the lungs. He died at the scene.

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Saken Bitayev | Source: RBK

On the same day, a driver working for an Almaty TV channel, Muratkhan Bazarbayev, was shot dead while driving two journalists to film in Republic Square. Before leaving, they were informed that the military had already liberated the square from unidentified groups. Cameraman Diasken Baitibayev was also shot. The bullet hit his right hand and surgeons were forced to amputate two of his fingers.

During the January events in Kazakhstan, at least four foreign citizens were killed. Russian citizen Maria Kim, 26, died in Taraz on 6 January as a result of a gunshot wound. The following day , 22-year-old Israeli citizen Levan Kojiashvili was killed in Almaty. He had not participated in the armed clashes, but was wounded on his way to work. He was taken to the hospital, but doctors could not save him.

Aziz Musaev, a 32-year-old citizen of Kyrgyzstan, was shot dead on 6 January near Republic Square in Almaty. On his way home from his sister’s apartment, Musaev saw a wounded man and began to help him. At that moment, unknown persons opened fire on him. He had lived in Kazakhstan since 2015 and worked as a coach in a city sports centre.

On 11 January, the State Committee for National Security of Kyrgyzstan reported the death of another citizen of Kyrgyzstan. The man’s name was Bakhtiyar Bazarbaev, but the details of his death have not been disclosed and his body has not been handed over to his relatives due to an ongoing investigation.

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Image: Almas Kaisar

Reports of torture

As reports of mass detentions began to filter through, people also began to report severe torture and ill-treatment at the hands of Kazakhstan’s security services. These messages, from people released after several days of detention, as well as relatives of the detainees and their lawyers, came in droves in the week after the protests.

Indeed, perhaps the sheer volume of messages prompted President Tokayev to act. On 15 January, during a meeting with the country’s law enforcement, he spoke out about the need to respect the rights of citizens. The day before, he had instructed the General Prosecutor’s Office to mitigate punishment for people detained during the protests who do not have ‘aggravating circumstances’. Late in the evening of 15 January, the General Prosecutor’s Office reported that it had received 32 complaints against law enforcement officers. “The facts [of these complaints] are being checked,” a representative said dryly, saying lawyers and the human rights ombudsman’s office had access to detainees.

The Commissioner for Human Rights, Elvira Azimova, confirmed that it was possible to get access to detainees. “We have been visiting all institutions since yesterday,” she said on January 15. The first detentions had begun ten days before her announcement.

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A burnout car, flash grenades found on an Almaty street, security forces in central Almaty
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Images: Zhanar Sekerbayeva

Azimova did not confirm whether torture had been used and did not name the number of complaints received by her. She said that she had personally visited two detention centres in Almaty, and discovered that relatives of detainees were not informed about their whereabouts and made representatives of the prosecutor's office correct the situation. Also, the Commissioner's office has secured access to all detained for their lawyers, she said.

The Commissioner for Human Rights noted that she was less worried about the situation with the detention of civil activists, because “they are literate people and know how to behave”.

“According to civil activists, they are backed by human rights organisations that have declared themselves as such for a long time in the information space and give some messages. They have entire teams, they have lawyers there. That is, I honestly don’t worry about civil activists so much, because they are people, they are literate in legal terms, and in terms of the information space they are informed,” Azimova said.

However, both civil and political activists report being tortured and ill-treated by the police. Their ‘legal literacy’ did not help them, it seems.

On 4 January, for example, several supporters of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan were detained during a rally in Almaty. Among them was Dauren Dostiyarov, an activist who, after being released, reported having been tortured and repeatedly beaten by the police. According to Dostiyarov, he was hit several times already during his arrest. He was first held in a district police station, and then, from the evening of 6 January, in the temporary detention centre of the police department. In total, Dostiyarov was held by the police for nine days (the reasons for such a lengthy detention are unclear), before being released without any charges. Now the activist is being treated, he has severe headaches and it is difficult for him to walk.

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4 January, Almaty
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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On 11 January, Sergei Shutov, a civic activist from Atyrau, was detained by the police, where he says he was tortured and beaten. He was taken from home and taken to a gym in the courtyard of the Atyrau city police department. According to Shutov, after several hours of beatings, he was placed under administrative arrest for two days. On 4 January, he had been present at the city’s central square during a rally held in support of protesters in the city of Zhanaozen.

After his release, Shutov immediately went to the hospital. Having received a medical certificate that confirmed he had been beaten, he wrote a statement to police and spoke about this case online. The police department in Atyrau told Radio Azattyk that Shutov’s statement had been registered. On 13 January, the press service of the commandant's office of the Atyrau region denied reports of torture in the Dynamo sports complex.

On 9 January, at around 7pm, a group of ten people wearing masks and armed with machine guns broke into the apartment of Timur Kim, a 37-year-old Almaty resident. In front of his wife and three small children, he was beaten and then taken to the Almaty city police department, according to Kim’s wife Laylim Abildaeva. A day later, Kim was brought back to his apartment by police officers to conduct a search.

In tears, he told his wife that he had been bullied and beaten all night. His clothes were torn and soaked with blood, his arms were broken, and his body was covered with bruises and bruises. During the search, the investigator stated that Kim was accused of aiding terrorists. Three people allegedly identified him as distributing weapons to unidentified groups who were raiding state administration buildings. Kim’s wife is convinced that this is a mistake.

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Kuat Khamitov | Source: Instagram

On 13 January, mixed martial arts fighter Kuat Khamitov, 33, recorded a video message, which was distributed by many sports media, in which he announced the end of his sports career after a brutal arrest and beating by the police. According to Khamitov, he had participated in a rally in support of demands for lower gas prices, where he organised the protesters so that the rally was peaceful. A few days later, state security officers asked him to come and have a conversation with him, but before the appointed time of arrival, armed police raided his home. They detained and beat both Khamitov and his father, and took them to the building of the city police department. Both men were kept for about six hours, during which time they were subjected to force. Police photographed the men and recorded a video of Khamitov’s bruised face and posted it on social networks. Then both men were released.

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Aset Abishev | Source: Facebook

On 4 January, civic activist Aset Abishev was detained by police in Almaty as he returned from a memorial service for a relative.

Abishev had previously served three years in prison for supporting Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, a banned political movement tied to exiled banker Mukhtar Ablyazov.

According to Abishev, he was kept for three days at Zhetysu district police department, and was beaten on the third day.

On the evening of 6 January, the activist was transferred to the isolation ward of the city department, where he was beaten even more severely. The police officers did not explain to him the reason for detention, interrogating him as a witness with the right to protection. On 10 January he was released. A medical examination recorded numerous bad bruises on Abishev’s body.

Kuat Shamuratov, a civic activist, was detained after participating in rallies on 5 and 6 January in Aktobe. He was subsequently charged with ‘organising mass unrest’, but, according to Shamuratov’s mother, during the protests, the activist actually urged others not to succumb to provocations and not to violate public order. His mother also claimed that, on 7 January, when the activist was being taken from the police department to the detention centre, he was severely beaten on the head with rifle butts and suffered a concussion.

On the night of 4 January, Arman Tokanov went to a rally in Almaty. Tokanov had recently returned from the army, and his sister said he had wanted to stop looters during the riots, but they beat him. Having been injured, he took a taxi to a city hospital where he underwent surgery and was transferred to the ward. On 11 January, he was supposed to be discharged, but the day before, his relatives learned that Tokanov had been taken by special forces officers to an unknown location. A few days later, his relatives learned that he was in a pre-trial detention centre. A criminal case had been opened against him for participating in ‘mass unrest’.

On the afternoon of 5 January, photographer Sayat Adilbekuly, 30, was looking for an open pharmacy in Almaty to buy medicine for his daughter. He returned home covered in blood, after which he was taken to hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. Adilbekuly was in serious condition in intensive care when, on 8 January, a special forces unit took him from the hospital, and his things were returned to his relatives. From that day on, there has been no further contact with Sayat. According to data from Qantar 2022, the man was found, but there is no other information about his condition.

Activist Muratbek Yessengazy was detained for the first time on 10 January, when he was taken to a police station, interrogated and released. Two days later, the man was again detained and taken to the Almaty city police department. On 13 January, he was subject to a five-hour interrogation and the next day, a court authorised his two-month arrest. According to lawyer, Galym Nurpeisov, masked police officers beat the activist with rubber truncheons, and there were large bruises on the man’s thigh. Yesengazy has been charged with participating in ‘mass unrest’.

On 5 January, Yerkin Zhenisnura, 27, left his house in Almaty and 30 minutes later came under gunfire. He was found, after some time, by one of his relatives, who called an ambulance. Zhenisnura was taken in serious condition to a city hospital, where. within three hours, he underwent surgery – a kidney was removed. Until 10am on 6 January, he lay unconscious in intensive care. The next day his wife came to visit him, but Zhenisnura was no longer there. Nurses told her that armed men had disconnected him from medical equipment, twisted his arms and took him with them. His wife’s attempts to find her husband in the district and city police departments have not yet yielded results. He was also not found in the central morgue.

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Anatoly Akhmetov | Source: Instagram

On the night of 5 January, chef Anatoly Akhmetov went to a peaceful rally in Almaty, after which he entered a city hospital with a gunshot wound to the lower jaw. After receieving first aid, he was transferred to another hospital. Akhmetov's wife called him and brought parcels to the hospital, and his condition improved. On 8 January, he stopped answering calls, and doctors told his relatives that Akhmetov and two other patients had been taken away in an unknown direction by riot police officers, having beaten him with a rifle butt. Only on 14 January did Akhmetov’s wife manage to find out that her husband was in a pre-trial detention centre.

The fight for a fair investigation is yet to come

The Coalition Against Torture, a Kazakhstani organisation, is now collecting applications and offering legal and psychological assistance to victims of torture and ill-treatment.

Anna Solodova, a lawyer for the organisation, said at first the coalition began to receive requests from those who could not find their relatives and friends. At this stage, lawyers called the city’s pre-trial detention centre, temporary detention centre and other institutions to help find the missing. Now, the coalition is also collecting data on incoming complaints of torture and ill-treatment into a single table.

“I can’t talk about numbers yet, because my colleagues simply don’t have time to enter the data yet,” said Solodova. “That is, we’re facing the question of either recording and collecting quantitative data, or helping. And we made a decision: first of all, our priority is to help, and then statistics and other things.”

Statements, according to Solodova, also come about various violations of rights.

“There is information about beatings, illegal detentions, illegal extensions of detention, and now we organise visits of lawyers as quickly as possible,” she said. We agree that it’s not an easy situation, because not all lawyers are ready to go so fast, not everyone is ready to go for small fees, that is, there’s a lot of nuances. We are now working and focusing on these problems.”

Tatyana Chernobyl, a human rights activist, pointed out that despite the state of emergency, torture was impermissible.

“In a state of emergency, human rights can be limited. But those that can’t be limited, even in a state of emergency, include the right to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment. Torture for any purpose is completely unacceptable, no matter how extreme the situation is,” she emphasised.

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16 January: Almaty
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Image: Vlast.kz

On 14 January, 12 organisations announced the formation of a human rights alliance that plans to analyse the course of the protests and conduct an independent investigation into respect for the fundamental principles of human rights. Human rights activists are planning and documenting the facts of torture and ill-treatment of detainees.

Last week, the country’s authorities used two names for what happened in Kazakhstan in early January – ‘The Almaty tragedy’ and ‘Tragic January’. From the speeches of the General Prosecutor’s Office and the police, it is clear that Kazakhstani law enforcement is, so far, referring to what happened as a ‘coordinated attack’ or a ‘terrorist attack’ with a ‘single centre of coordination’.

Will the causes of death of all the victims of Kazakhstan’s Bloody January be established? How many of them are there? Will the figure of 225 change? What are their names? Will the torture stop, or be investigated?

Without answers to these questions, Kazakhstanis will not be able to find consolation – no matter how the authorities refer to these events.

You can read previous reporting by Vlast in English here.

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