No justice for torture victims a year after Kazakhstan’s ‘Bloody January’
Hundreds of people reported having been tortured by law enforcement during Kazakhstan’s bloody January. But justice has been elusive
Kazakhstani law enforcement didn’t just use lethal force against protesters and people on the streets during mass protests in January 2022 – they also used torture widely during and after the unrest.
At least 190 people were tortured by Kazakhstani law enforcement during the protests, which shook the country earlier this year, according to an independent coalition of human rights defenders. That’s on top of the 238 people killed in the events.
During the chaos of early January, president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed that the protests were hijacked by thousands of “terrorists” who were using the instability to attempt a coup against the Kazakhstani government – a claim that has since been met with extreme scepticism.
In the aftermath, Tokayev promised that the government would address the public’s concerns over the huge wealth, impunity and power that government figures and law enforcement enjoy.
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Yet official investigations into torture of protesters have largely fizzled out, and many cases have been closed – casting a shadow over promises of change for the Central Asian state’s law and justice system.
Police fire on protesters
5 January was a big day in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s southern commercial capital.
The protests, though, had drawn out long-running anger at Kazakhstan’s political system and the man who many believed to control it: Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of the Central Asian state between 1991 and 2019. Protesters in Almaty later that evening stormed the Akimat, the city administration building, and a presidential residence in the city, as reports of increasing police violence against people on the city streets began to filter out.
5 January: seizure of Almaty city administration building. Source: Vlast.kz
Kosai Makhanbayev, a city resident, was on Republic Square that day like thousands of others.
When the police started shooting live rounds at protesters, Makhanbayev, 38, was not far from the CSKA sports centre, where he played tennis as a child, in the heart of the city.
As Makhanbayev, who resells medicines in the country, ran from the bullets, he saw a man fall onto the sidewalk near the city’s Central Museum. Along with another man, he approached the wounded man to help him.
As they lifted the wounded man, three more bullets hit Makhanbayev: the first in the hip joint, the second in the thigh of the left leg, and the third in the left foot.
He started losing consciousness and heard voices shouting “Stop!”, as if from afar. A van carrying the wounded and the dead was driving past. Makhanbayev was thrown inside.
He was taken to one of the city’s specialist surgery hospitals and laid on a table in the emergency room. Two wounded men were lying nearby and, on the floor, a large man in his 40s. All of them were covered in blood.
Makhanbayev was given stitches and an injection for pain relief by a nurse.
After that, he was sent to Almaty’s Central Hospital number 12. He remembers hearing someone say: “The dead are here, urgent cases are in intensive care, and these are here.”
Staff X-rayed him, stitched his foot – which had been severely wounded – and then transferred him to a ward. Together with other patients, he watched stories from local TV channels about the “terrorists” who had allegedly attacked the city, according to government officials.
From time to time, Makhanbayev asked the nurses: “What was going on? Have wounded people arrived?” He was told there had never been such an influx of patients, and that the arrivals included a lot of young men in their early 20s. By that time, the hospital mortuary had been cleared of corpses at least once, and dead bodies continued to be brought in.
In the days that followed 5 January, state authorities gradually established control over city streets – after president Tokayev issued a “shoot-to-kill order” to the country’s law enforcement amid reports about the use of military firearms and casualties among the population. Rumours and reports also circulated about attacks on people and property by organised groups of looters and provocateurs.
On 8 January, masked men armed with machine guns entered Makhanbayev’s ward. A man in civilian clothes and without a mask, later recognised as an officer from the National Security Committee (Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency, better known as the KNB), entered with a nurse in her 30s, who told the security forces: “Here they are. Here, take them!”
Seeing armed men in masks, for a moment Makhanbayev thought these men were the very “terrorists” that Tokayev had been talking about on TV.
The armed men threw Makhanbayev, who was hooked up to an IV, out of the bed and started beating him with their hands, feet and rifle butts. The nurse accompanying them saw this, but did not say anything.
Two men were taken out of the ward – Makhanbayev and another man, who were both beaten in the corridor. Makhanbayev took out a tasbih, a set of prayer beads, and a national guard officer who saw this told him: “Since you are a Muslim, you can put on a sweat jacket.” It was the last good gesture from the police. After that, he was told to move. But he could not walk – any movement of his leg made him writhe in pain – so he was told to crawl.
Having crawled to the elevator, Makhanbayev was taken down to the ground floor of the hospital, where he continued crawling – to a police van standing outside. While he was crawling, the men beat him with the butt of a machine gun.
One of the doctors at that moment went into the intern’s room and saw what was happening, but did nothing. Recalling those events, Makhanbayev later said he did not see any of the hospital workers interfering with the security forces.
During the van ride, his captors hit him ten times with the butt of a machine gun on the head, and told him that they could kill him at any moment. Many who had been taken from the hospital ward that day and thrown into the van were preparing for death, Makhanbayev recalls.
When the van pulled into the courtyard of an Almaty pre-trial detention centre, the detainees were taken out and laid on the pavement. Some were without clothes. Makhanbayev gave one of them his sports jacket.
As he recalls, the national guard troops wore balaclavas, while state security officers had their faces open. (“If we met them, we would recognise them all,” he says.) The men were then undressed, laid naked on the concrete and beaten.
“They didn’t stop until 12 January. They beat, mocked, starved us for the first two days, without any medical care,” Makhanbayev remembers.
Kosai Makhanbayev is far from the only resident who Kazakhstani law enforcement removed from the city hospital and tortured. The same thing happened to dozens of people in Almaty, according to the International Partnership for Human Rights.
By 31 October, the Coalition of Non-Governmental Organisations Against Torture – a Kazakhstani human rights initiative – had received 190 reports of torture and other ill-treatment during the January protests from across Kazakhstan.
“It’s not that the allegations of torture are not true. It’s that, if the cases were closed, it means there wasn’t sufficient evidence”
At the same time, Kazakhstani prosecutors opened more 200 criminal investigations into allegations of torture during the January events.
Right from the beginning, city residents who claimed they had been tortured picketed the Almaty city prosecutor's office to demand a proper investigation. For several months, they regularly protested outside the building, many of them still bearing the traces of what they had experienced in January.
In the summer, the police detained Kosai Makhanbayev during one of these protests, claiming he had organised an illegal rally outside the prosecutor’s office. He was detained for organising an illegal rally [the June 1 rally] and returned to the pre-trial detention centre where he had survived beatings and torture in January
By November 2022, 80% of the torture investigations had been closed, including Makhanbayev’s case.
We need the evidence
The problem with investigating allegations of torture during the January 2022 events, according to Kazakhstan’s human rights commissioner Elvira Azimova, is the lack of usable evidence of torture.
“It’s not that the allegations of torture are not true,” Azimova said in November, noting she had raised the issue repeatedly with the General Prosecutor’s Office.
“It’s that, if the cases were closed, it means there wasn’t sufficient evidence,” she said.
But lawyer Ainara Aidarkhanova – who represented four people who claimed they had been tortured in January, including Kosai Makhanbayev – said that while the apparent lack of video evidence of torture is used to close investigations, Kazakhstani law enforcement has little interest in the investigations at all.
“If investigators were really interested in identifying the perpetrators of torture, they could retrieve all the videos from the pre-trial detention centre [which had CCTV in the corridors],” she told openDemocracy.
At the same time, Aidarkhanova said that her clients had identified their tormentors and confronted them. “Of course, they all denied their involvement,” she notes.
One of the few public videos confirming the testimonies of those who claimed they had been tortured, at least their removal from hospitals, was published by Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstani service, Radio Azattyk. In the video, interior ministry troops can be seen leading people on crutches into police vans during the protests.
"Access to video cameras is fundamental if we want to understand what happened. We were not given any access"
Another piece of evidence showing that wounded people were taken out of hospitals is a document signed by the acting head doctor of Almaty’s emergency hospital.
That document was provided to openDemocracy by lawyer Galym Nurpeisov, who represented a man, Nurtai Kazhgaliyev, who received a gunshot wound during the protests and alleged he had been removed to police custody, where he was tortured.
The emergency hospital informed Nurpeisov that “there was no life-threatening condition during the [patient’s] transfer”, but that Kazhgaliyev had been removed from the hospital in the presence of a KNB officer, along with 16 other patients. The doctor’s answer matches the testimonies of the men who claimed they had been tortured after a special forces unit led by a KNB officer burst into the hospital wards.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, a leading human rights defender in the country, told openDemocracy that Kazakhstan’s law enforcement agencies hold all relevant evidence on police torture during January 2022 – and this hinders an honest investigation of what happened.
He notes it is extremely rare to prove torture or abuse of authority in Kazakhstan, and that the January events are no exception, but the rule.
“Access to video cameras is fundamental if we want to understand what happened. We were not given any access. There is no cooperation between human rights defenders and investigators, who have access to [necessary] documents,” he says.
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