#ForSaltanat. Justice for domestic abuse victims in Kazakhstan remains rare despite a recent high-profile victory — Novaya Gazeta Europe
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#ForSaltanat

Justice for domestic abuse victims in Kazakhstan remains rare despite a recent high-profile victory

#ForSaltanat

Quandyq Bishimbaev during his trial. Photo: Supreme Court of Kazakhstan

The trial of a former government minister for brutally murdering his wife gripped Kazakhstan earlier in May, and his 24-year prison sentence has sparked public discussion of the country’s long-unaddressed domestic violence problem.

Saltanat Nukenova, an astrologer with a finance degree who came from a well-off family in the Kazakh city of Pavlodar, met Quandyq Bishimnaev, Kazakhstan’s former national economy minister, shortly after his release from prison in 2022, where he had been serving a sentence for bribery, ending a once promising political career.

Bishimbaev relentlessly pursued a romantic relationship with Saltanat, constantly writing to her online and persuading her not to pay any attention to his conviction. Bishimbaev and Saltanat dated for a couple of months and married quickly after that.

Quandyq Bishimnaev and Saltanat Nukenova. Photo: Janaarna / YouTube

Quandyq Bishimnaev and Saltanat Nukenova. Photo: Janaarna / YouTube

Shortly into their marriage, however, Bishimbaev became violent. Saltanat first sent images of her injuries to her brother, Aitbek Amangeldy, in March 2023 but asked him to exercise discretion as she knew that Bishimbaev was surveilling her phone. Amangeldy told Novaya Europe that this was the “first case of physical violence” he was aware of between the couple.

“After that, we constantly tried to help her escape her marriage,” Amangeldy said. Saltanat herself attempted to leave her husband several times. Texts to one of her friends discovered in Saltanat’s message history after her death suggested Bishimbaev had filmed her naked without her consent and then used the footage to blackmail her into staying with him.

The murder 

On the evening of 8 November, Bishimbaev and Saltanat attended a concert in the Kazakh capital Astana, where Bishimbaev said he and Saltanat had got into a fight after she became jealous when a female friend greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. The couple left the concert early and headed to BAU, an elite restaurant located in a building belonging to Bishimbaev’s family.

The couple headed for a VIP booth and ordered drinks — a fact Bishimbaev’s defence team would later cite to claim that Saltanat had in fact fallen over and hit her head repeatedly while drunk.

The BAU restaurant in Astana on the night of Saltanat’s murder. Photo:  tengrinews  / Telegram

The BAU restaurant in Astana on the night of Saltanat’s murder. Photo: tengrinews / Telegram

As the evening went on, the fight turned violent. CCTV footage from the restaurant shows the couple arguing with one another, and Bishimbaev aggressively approaching Saltanat and attempting to grab her face.

At one point during the night, Saltanat attempted to hide in the bathroom, but Bishimbaev broke into the room and, according to his testimony in court, “gave her a couple of slaps”. As their fight escalated, restaurant cameras recorded Saltanat staggering half-naked with a severely bruised and swollen face while Bishimbaev repeatedly hit and kicked her.

Saltanat after one of her husband’s beatings. Photo: Nukenova HELP / Telegram

Saltanat after one of her husband’s beatings. Photo: Nukenova HELP / Telegram

The abuse went on for hours. Videos that were later found on Bishimbaev’s phone and shown to the judge show him brutally torturing his wife, proving the false nature of the defence team’s claims. The videos were not shown to the public, but from the audio alone, it was clear that Bishimbaev relentlessly beat Saltanat, demanding that she confess to a relationship he believed Saltanat had been in before the couple married.

In court, Bishimbaev said that Saltanat was “snoring” when he woke up the next day at around 1pm — forensic experts said that the “snores” were likely to have been death rattles — and had a large bruise on the left side of her face. Bishimbaev said that he had called a psychic who told him Saltanat would be fine, and he left her to “sleep it off” without calling an ambulance.

Bishimbaev said that he had called a psychic who told him Saltanat would be fine, and he left her to “sleep it off” without calling an ambulance. 

Bishimbaev attempted to cover up the gruesome events, even asking the restaurant manager, Bakhytzhan Baizhanov, who was also his relative, to delete the incriminating footage from the surveillance cameras, all while Saltanat’s body was lying motionless on a couch in the restaurant booth.

Photo: Supreme Court of Kazakhstan

Photo: Supreme Court of Kazakhstan

Baizhanov, who deleted all CCTV footage which was later recovered by investigators, was sentenced to four years in prison for concealment of evidence and failure to report the crime. He was the one to finally call in the medics at 8pm despite Bishinbaev’s demands that he not do so — but it was too little, too late.

Emergency services reported that by the time they arrived, Saltanat had been dead for up to eight hours. Saltanat sustained a traumatic brain injury and multiple bruises, the court was told, and she had signs of strangulation on her neck. She was 31 years old at the time of her death.

Aftershock

After Saltanat’s brother posted a photo with a glass of wine on social media in reference to Bishimbaev’s accusation that Saltanat’s injuries were entirely attributed to her alcohol consumption, a social media campaign with the hashtag “#forSaltanat” went viral across the country.

The trial’s publicity, the 24-year sentence handed down to Bishimbaev and the social media campaign that followed, prompted many in the authoritarian country to protest the lack of legal consequences for perpetrators of domestic abuse in Kazakhstan. In particular, many aired their frustrations with former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s decision to decriminalise domestic violence in 2017, a move that led to a reported spike in domestic abuse cases.

The social media campaign culminated in victory when Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev signed legislation dubbed “Saltanat’s Law” that made domestic abuse a crime in Kazakhstan on 11 April.

“It was a sobering moment for all of us,” lawyer Zhanna Urazbakhova, who represents Saltanat’s family, told Novaya Europe. “Everyone finally realised that no matter what kind of family you live in, no matter what your social status and financial situation is, any woman can face domestic violence.”

“Just in 2020, 164,000 domestic violence reports were filed to the police,” Urazbakhova said. But at the time, the only legal consequence for abusers was an administrative fine. “The offenders realised that they could get away with it even if they beat their wife a second time”.

The social media campaign culminated in victory when Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev signed legislation dubbed “Saltanat’s Law” that made domestic abuse a crime in Kazakhstan on 11 April.

Saltanat Nukenova’s brother Aitbek Amangeldy attends the trial. Photo: Supreme Court of Kazakhstan

Saltanat Nukenova’s brother Aitbek Amangeldy attends the trial. Photo: Supreme Court of Kazakhstan

Saltanat’s trial effectively forced a confrontation between the “old” and “new” Kazakhstan, as Bishimbaev embodied the impunity and corruption of Nazarbaev’s long rule, but did not ultimately escape punishment as Tokaev and his administration wanted to demonstrate that times had changed, Kazakh human rights activist Dinara Smailova told Novaya Europe.

But even with the new law, the situation is unlikely to change for the better any time soon, Urazhbakhova said. Last year alone, 69 women and seven children were killed at the hands of their own family members in Kazakhstan.

Indeed, even as Bishimnaev’s trial was being held, another woman was brutally murdered by her ex-husband — this time in the southeastern city of Karaganda. Just two weeks after “Saltanat’s Law” was signed, Gulmira Tarmasova was stabbed to death by her ex-husband in front of their children.

Last year alone, 69 women and seven children were killed at the hands of their own family members in Kazakhstan.

Tarmasova had gone to the police to ask for help several times before her death, but each time her husband had faced no consequences, boasting his connections with the police. Even on the day of her murder, police were called to their home after receiving a domestic violence complaint, but left soon afterwards without taking any action. Several hours later, Tarmasova was dead.

“Until our family faced domestic violence, I didn’t know how many women suffered from domestic abuse,” Saltanat’s brother told Novaya Europe, adding that he now receives dozens of messages from Kazakh women wanting to share their experience. To support them, he has established a foundation in Saltanat’s name.

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