PRAGUE, 27 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov told journalists in Astana today that Erzhan Utembaev, chief of the Kazakh Senate's administration, planned the slaying of Altynbek Sarsenbaev.
Angry Over Article?
Mukhamedzhanov said the motive for the killing was a "long-lasting personal enmity" between the two men. "The person who ordered [the killing] was the former head of the Senate administration [Erzhan Utembaev]," he said. "After Sarsenbaev published an article giving a negative characterization of [Utembaev] in one of the national newspapers, their relations deteriorated rapidly. After the publication of that article, Erzhan Utembaev's career, in his own words, went downhill. Blaming that on Sarsenbaev, he nurtured the idea of taking revenge on him for a long time."
"The problem is how were all those confessions made by those who allegedly now say that they were involved in the murder? Unfortunately, [in Kazakhstan], those who confess to murder often have nothing to do with it. I am afraid we are seeing that practice in this case."
Sarsenbaev, a former Information Minister and once the Kazakh ambassador to Russia, joined the opposition in 2003 and was one of the leaders of the Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) opposition party.
He was kidnapped on 11 February and was found shot dead in the Almaty outskirts two days later with his bodyguard and his driver.
On 20 February, five agents of Arystan (Lion), the Kazakh national security service's (KNB) elite unit, were arrested for the killing and allegedly confessed to kidnapping Sarsenbaev and his aides.
Security Service Involvement
KNB chief Nartay Dutbaev resigned on 21 February following the news about the arrests. Utembaev was arrested the next day. Authorities said he ordered the kidnapping and murder of Sarsenbaev.
Mukhamedzhanov also said today that Rustam Ibragimov -- a former Arystan officer -- organized and oversaw the operation while the five other current officers carried out the murder.
He said the two have been interrogated and added that Utembaev confessed to taking a $60,000 bank loan to pay for the contract killing.
Opposition Not Buying It
The announcement comes after numerous calls from the opposition for a fair investigation and one day after a large protest in Almaty.
The opposition has insisted that Sarsenbaev's murder was politically motivated and it has formed a public committee to conduct an independent probe into the murder.
Today, dozens of protesters picketed the Almaty City Interior Affairs Department demanding greater transparency in the investigation of Sarsenbaev's killing.
Analysts also express doubts that personal enmity led to Sarsenbaev's killing. They say today's announcement from the country's interior minister makes it clear how Kazakh authorities want to interpret the murder.
Dosym Satpaev, the director of the Almaty-based Political Risks Assessment Group, tells RFE/RL that Sarsenbaev's murder and all the following events are done by the authorities with one goal in mind -- clearing the path for Nazarbaev's potential successor to take power.
"Concerted efforts to form a public opinion in accordance with some plan are evident," he said. "One of the influential groups within the political elite -- which includes the president's family, declares that there was a plot organized against the president and hints about possible participants in the plot who are members of rival political groups."
Satpaev says recent events are aimed at killing two birds with one stone: on the one hand, the authorities eliminated Sarsenbaev, who was a major strategist of the opposition. On the other, Satpaev says, the Nazarbaev family gets rid of rivals within the government itself -- Utembaev and others.
"Strong attacks on [Senate speaker] Nurtay Abykaev attract attention," he said. "He belonged to the political elite, to the circle of the head of state, for a long time. Abykaev's group included KNB chief [Nartay Dutbaev], who resigned, and Erzhan Utembaev, who was arrested. This group has been in a conflict with the president's eldest daughter and her husband, Rakhat Aliev. It means that now we see a very strong rivalry within the elite and clashes between the two groups."
The opposition has demanded that Nurtay Abykaev, the speaker of parliament's upper house and also a former head of the KNB, resigns after Utembaev's arrest. Opposition leaders said on 23 February that the Senate speaker had enough power to influence the probe into Sarsenbaev's killing.
Second Killing Since November
Sarsenbaev was the second opposition figure to die under suspicious circumstances in the last three months.
In mid-November, prominent opposition member Zamanbek Nurkadilov's body was found in his Almaty villa with three gunshot wounds.
An official investigation concluded that Nurkadilov had committed suicide. The opposition ruled out this conclusion, arguing that Nurkadilov would not be able to shoot himself twice in the chest and once in the head.
The opposition says political reasons are behind both deaths.
The President's Daughter
Last week, opposition leaders said Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, leader of the Asar (Altogether) party and a member of parliament, as well as her husband Rakhat Aliev, deputy foreign minister and a former chief of the KNB, also played a role in the killings.
Today, the opposition leaders are also doubtful about Mukhamedzhanov's statements.
Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a leader of the For a Fair Kazakhstan opposition movement and a presidential candidate, also served as the country's prosecutor general for many years.
"It's difficult to believe that Altynbek Sarsenbaev wrote something that Utembaev didn't like," he said. "The problem is how were all those confessions made by those who allegedly now say that they were involved in the murder. Unfortunately, [in Kazakhstan], those who confess to murder often have nothing to do with it. I am afraid we are seeing that practice in this case."
Sarsenbaev's elder brother, Ryspek, also said he did not believe the official investigation's conclusions. "It's not only me, my grandchildren are not going to believe these tall tales," he said. "I do not think that all details are being made public. I am afraid that no one wants the process to be transparent."
The opposition is insisting that Nazarbaev's daughter and son-in-law be interrogated in relation to the killings.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)