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Same-Day Analysis

Questions Linger as Kazakh Court Convicts All 10 Defendants for Opposition Leader's Murder

Published: 01 September 2006
A court in south-east Kazakhstan has delivered guilty verdicts in the murder trial of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev, handing down the death sentence to the main defendant although there remain a number of unanswered questions fuelling the belief that the trial was an elaborate cover-up.

Global Insight Perspective



A court has convicted 10 men for their involvement in the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev, handing down the death sentence to the alleged planner of the murder, former security officer Rustam Ibragimov as well as giving Erzhan Utembayev, the head of the Senate administration a 20-year sentence for his part in the murder.


The stiff sentences will not succeed in drawing a line under a trial which has sent shockwaves through Kazakhstan, serving to reinforce the opposition's claims that the murder was perpetrated by a powerful economic interest group close to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.


The trial reinforces the divisions between those interest groups that are close to the administration and those that support the opposition, although the disclosure of the activities of the KNB secret service will give a boost to the opposition. Moreover, as a result of the trial, which has exposed the wide divisions within the ruling elite, the government will have greater difficulty in the future disguising the tensions under the thin veneer of stability.

Opposition Decries "Hush Hush" Verdict

A three-judge panel in the south-eastern city of Taldykorghan found all 10 defendants in the murder trial of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev, who was gunned down along with his two bodyguards close to the commercial capital Almaty on 11 February, guilty as charged (see Kazakhstan: 14 February 2006: Spotlight on Administration as Prominent Kazakh Opposition Politician Gunned Down). Chief judge Lukmat Merekenov began the court session by declaring that one of the key defendants, former security officer Rustam Ibragimov, had been found guilty of planning and ordering the murder having been paid by the former head of the Senate (upper house of parliament) administration, Erzhan Utembayev, US$60,000 to organise the killing.

The three judges accepted Utembayev's initial confession, which claimed that he planned to kill Sarsenbayev over derogatory comments regarding Utembayev's alleged alcohol consumption that the former co-chairman of the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) party and leading figure in the opposition coalition For a Just Kazakhstan, had made in a newspaper. Merekenov then handed down the death sentence on Ibragimov (although as Kazakhstan observes a moratorium on capital punishment, this will be commuted to life), gave Utembayev a 20-year prison sentence and gave eight other accomplices, including seven former KNB agents, sentences of between three and 20 years.

The opposition immediately labelled the trial, which the victim's family have boycotted, a cover-up and indeed, while the majority of the physical evidence points to the involvement of Ibragimov and Utembayev, a number of questions remain which have served to expose the wide divisions within Kazakhstan's ruling elite. There is still concern over whether the motive was strong enough to plan such a strategic killing and the fact that Utembayev retracted his confession has given credence, at least in the opposition's eyes, to the belief that Utembayev had taken the "rap" for a murder that had been committed by a group close to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Moreover, Sarsenbayev was the second prominent opposition figure to be shot dead after Zamanbek Nurkadilov, another former ally of President Nazarbayev who had gone over to the opposition, was found dead in his apartment in Almaty in November 2005 (see Kazakhstan: 14 November 2005: Outspoken Opposition Critic Murdered in Former Kazakh Capital). The chief investigator of the trial Marat Akhmedjanov indicated that Nurkadilov, a former regional governor and emergencies minister, had committed suicide. This seems highly implausible given the fact that, similar to Sarsenbayev, he was found with two bullet wounds to the chest and one to the head.

In the immediate wake of the killing the opposition has accused President Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva and her husband Rakhat Aliyev, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs, in the murder, claiming that Sarsenbayev was killed as part of an attempt to clear any potential opposition ahead of a planned succession from father to daughter. Indeed, the murder does suggest that the various groups surrounding President Nazarbayev have begun to manoeuvre and position themselves in time for the eventual transition when Nazarbayev's current term expires in 2013—or earlier should Nazarbayev choose to appoint a successor prior to 2013.

Nazarbayeva and Aliyev may be the most visible of Nazarbayev's immediate family, but they are not necessarily the most influential. While their influence group controls vast media assets, it lacks major assets in the lucrative raw materials sector, and Aliyev in particular has alienated certain elites with assets in the raw-materials sector. With all of the main influence groups surrounding Nazarbayev under suspicion for Sarsenbayev's death, Dariga herself has launched an offensive against the other political elites slamming the security services, and demanding the resignation of the powerful Senate speaker Nurtai Abykayev after Utembayev was arrested.

Outlook and Implications

Nazarbayeva's attack on Abykayev, which is an indirect attack on Timur Kulibayev, Dariga's long-term rival and husband of Nazarbayev's second daughter Dinara, appears to have backfired as President Nazarbayev appeared to sanction an attack on the Nazarbayeva/Aliyev influence group's interests. As a result, the Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbayev has announced government-backed plans to take over her Khabar television channel and Dariga has been forced to merge her own political party with the ruling Otan party. At the same time, Kulibayev and Abykayev have done little to dampen the rumours surrounding Aliyev and Dariga.

While the opposition may receive a temporary boost following the trial, it has been a major blow for the ruling elites close to President Nazarbayev as it has served to shatter the thin veneer of stability that they have attempted to project.

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