General Zhomart Mazhrenov spent more than 25 years in the service of the Soviet KGB, then Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB). But on July 8, after a few weeks in a prison cell, the general decided to end it all -- and hang himself.
Mazhrenov, it seems, had become ensnared in a power struggle between Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his disgraced former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev.
Through his marriage to Nazarbaev's eldest daughter Darigha, Aliev accumulated a fortune, climbing through the ranks of government to become deputy chief of the presidential security service and deputy KNB director.
Now a fugitive in Austria, Aliev has been convicted in Kazakhstan for crimes that include plotting to overthrow his former father-in-law.
Given his KNB past, Kazakh authorities suspect Aliev had enlisted some in the agency to carry out his agenda. Earlier this year, during Aliev's trial in absentia in which former KNB chief Alnur Musaev was also a defendant, 12 KNB officials were convicted of crimes tied to Aliev's alleged activities, including kidnapping and plotting to topple Nazarbaev.
All 12 were immediate subordinates of Mazhrenov, who retired last year and last month was arrested, charged with abuse of office and dereliction of duty, and placed in KNB custody.
"He was a professional and he knew his job," Arat Narmanbetov, a former KNB colonel who knew Mazhrenov, tells RFE/RL. "But in recent years, in connection to Rakhat Aliev and Musaev, somehow he [Mazhrenov] got involved with Rakhat, and you know about him and his illegal activities. And Musaev and Mazhrenov and other coup plotters were brought down."
The nature of Mazhrenov's ties to Aliev is unclear, but speculation is rife.
Last autumn, prior to the first of Aliev's two trials, independent Kazakh websites obtained recordings of conversations purportedly between top Kazakh state and business officials, including allegedly Nazarbaev himself. They appeared to implicate officials in illegal activities, including payouts to the president's ruling party, Nur-Otan (Light of the Fatherland).
Many in Kazakhstan suspected that Aliev and Musaev provided the websites with the tapes. Both were senior KNB officials. Moreover, from 2001 to 2007 Mazhrenov headed the KNB's Electronic Intelligence Service, which carried out activities such as tapping telephone conversations.
Narmanbetov says Mazhrenov did not seem like someone who would commit suicide.
"He was a person with a strong will, it's hard to believe," Narmanbetov says. "Usually people with a weak character commit suicide. But of course on the other hand, a person who worked their whole life in the [National Security] Committee -- he had the post of general -- to be arrested, it is a great disgrace for his family, his friends, and for those worked with him. Of course it is a huge shock, so I cannot exclude that someone would be driven to such an extreme act."
What Narmanbetov can't understand is how it could happen at a KNB holding facility. "It would be almost impossible, because there is such surveillance [of prisoners] that it is practically impossible, and especially since according to regulations there is not only one person [in a cell], but a minimum of two."
Narmanbetov says even if Mazhrenov had been alone in his cell, there would have been nothing to hang himself with. In the holding cells, suspects' belts are taken away and there are no bed sheets or other materials that could be used to make a noose.
Whatever happened, Mazhrenov will no longer face trial. And he was the person in perhaps the best position to know the truth behind the tapes that continue to rock Kazakh politics.
RFE/RL's acting Kazakh Service Director Edige Magauin and correspondent Danabek Zhalmyrza contributed to this report