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Kazakhstan: Opposition Figure Found Shot Dead Near Almaty

Sarsenbaev speaking to journalists at the December 2005 funeral of fellow oppositionist Zamanbek Nurkadilov (RFE/RL) The bodies of Altynbek Sarsenbaev, a co-chairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol opposition party, his bodyguard, and his driver were found in the Almaty outskirts early today. The three were reportedly shot dead. A former information minister and a former ambassador to Russia, Sarsenbaev was a fierce critic of Kazakhstan's current regime.

PRAGUE, 13 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Details are still sketchy as Kazakhstan's police refuse to give details about the incident.

"He was murdered," said Aydos Sarymov, an aide to Sarsenbaev, in an interview with RFE/RL. "His hands were tied behind his back. They shot him first in front and then in the back of his head. There is no doubt it is a murder."

RFE/RL spoke to the Almaty city police, but a police officer who wished to stay anonymous refused to give details.

"Yes, we have this information," the officer said. "But as it happened in [Almaty] region, not in the city, you have to reach the [Interior Ministry]. Don't refer to me."

Sarsenbaev was missing since late on 11 February. His body was found by local villagers.

Last Seen On 11 February

The Kazinform state agency reports that Sarsenbaev was killed while hunting.

"Jas Alash" editor Juldyz Abdilda told RFE/RL that Sarsenbaev gave an interview to the newspaper on the afternoon of 11 February. The newspaper's journalists were the first to alert people that Sarsenbaev was missing. They were soon joined by the oppositionist's fellow party members.

Sarsenbaev is the second prominent Kazakh opposition figure to be found shot dead in recent months.

On 12 November, Zamanbek Nurkadilov was found shot dead in his Almaty apartment. Police said there was no sign of a struggle, while the family's lawyer said Nurkadilov had been shot twice in the heart and once in the head.

He was a former mayor of Almaty and government minister before joining the opposition and accusing the government of corruption. A prominent Kazakh politician, Nurkadilov openly challenged incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev in public speeches.

'Not Enough Information'

The leader of Kazakhstan's opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who was also a presidential candidate in the December presidential election, confirmed Sarsenbaev's death to RFE/RL but refused to elaborate on possible motives.

"Yes, it's true that he was found dead along with the bodies of his bodyguard and driver," Tuyakbai said. "We can't say anything at this moment. A lot remains unclear. We have yet to find everything out. We don't have enough information."

Sarsenbaev, who was a government official and served as Kazakh ambassador to Russia, joined the opposition in 2003, and declared his intention to run for president.

He soon accepted the position of information minister but resigned after the September 2004 parliamentary polls as a way of protesting unfair elections.

Split In The Opposition

"With my stepping down, I want to show our fellow citizens that we do not see the posts and duties we hold as a major value," Sarsenbaev said at the time. "The major value for us is our service [to the nation], our being just and honest. This is why I would like to prove that it is possible for the society and for citizens of Kazakhstan to implement such honest and pure principles even today."

He was a member of the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) opposition party until its split in early 2005.

Sarsenbaev along with fellow opposition members Bulat Abilov and Oraz Zhandosov formed the Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) in April 2005.

"The reason is, since the situation developed within this party, we have held many gatherings," Sarsenbaev told journalists at the time. "At those gatherings, in every corner of our republic, we were called 'Naghyz Ak Zholdyqtar.' [loosely, the People on the True Bright Path]. That is why we decided not to change either the party's name or the party's views, but simply add the word 'Naghyz,' proposed by the people for our name."

Sarsenbaev was subject to government pressure ahead of the presidential elections on 4 December, when Nazarbaev received an overwhelming 92 percent of the vote.

History Of Problems

In November 2005, the opposition alleged that police had beaten two of Sarsenbaev's nephews.

That allegation came days after Sarsenbaev was injured in a meeting between the opposition with some citizens at a campaign rally. Sarsenbaev said at the time that he was surprised by the ferocity of the attack.

"First of all, we never thought [the authorities] would resort to such banditry," Sarsenbaev said at the time. "We've been in this country for 14 years [of independence], and any kind of injustice used to have certain norms and limits. To go beyond these limits means to go out of control. Now we see that those in power are ready to go beyond the accepted limits. We'll see what's going to happen in other regions we're going to visit."

The Kazakh Interior Ministry's Press Office and the Almaty regional police were not available for comment.

(Merhat Sharipzhan, the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report)

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