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Kazakhstan: Two Years Later, Opposition Leader's Murder Still Casts Long Shadow

An opposition supporter holds a picture of Sarsenbaev days after his 2006 murder (ITAR-TASS) On February 13, 2006, the bullet-ridden body of Altynbek Sarsenbaev, a leading Kazakh opposition figure, was found on the outskirts of Almaty.

The investigation into his killing touched the highest echelons of power in Kazakhstan. Although the court case is over, the incident continues to cast a shadow over Kazakh politics -- not least because President Nursultan Nazarbaev himself has been accused of ordering the murder.

Sarsenbaev's friends, relatives, and supporters gathered this week to remember the fiery opposition leader on the second anniversary of his murder.

Among them was Zhamarkhan Tuyakbai, the Social Democratic Party chief seen as the leading voice in the opposition since Sarsenbaev's death. "In the 1990s, if there was a politician who did more than others to strengthen our nation's statehood, who contributed a lot in plans and projects to develop their country, who helped to preserve the nation's prestige in the international arena, that person was Altynbek Sarsenbaev," Tuyakbai said.

Sarsenbaev was an opposition leader at the time of his death, but he had previously served as information minister, head of the Security Council, and ambassador to Russia.

On February 13, 2006, the bodies of Sarsenbaev, his driver, and a bodyguard were discovered in the Talgar district outside Almaty. They had been missing for three days. The killings came only a few months after the death of another leading opposition figure, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, but authorities said he killed himself, in spite of the bullet wounds in his chest and head.

Powerful Defendants

Eventually, Kazakh investigators arrested 10 men and put them on trial for Sarsenbaev's murder. Among the defendants were the head of the Senate administration, Yerzhan Utembaev, and members of an elite unit from the National Security Committee (KNB), whose chief, Nartai Dutbaev, resigned in disgrace. The prosecution alleged that Utembaev ordered the killing because Sarsenbaev had insulted him by calling him a drunk.

In early March 2006, Nazarbaev read a letter to deputies in parliament that he said was authored by Utembaev. "Nobody pushed me, nobody gave me any advice. For many years now I've been feeling personal enmity toward him [Sarsenbaev]. His statements about me damaged my nerves and made me go beyond the boundaries of reason," Nazarbaev quoted the letter as saying. "That's what he wrote. These things happen among human beings," he added.

At his trial, Utembaev claimed he was set up and that his confession was coerced. Similarly, former policeman Rustam Ibragimov, who was found guilty of carrying out the killing, also retracted his confession in court. All 10 defendants were found guilty and given lengthy prison sentences. Ibragimov was sentenced to death, though a moratorium on capital punishment in Kazakhstan means he will instead spend his life in prison.

But Sarsenbaev's brother, Rysbek, and others in the opposition suggested there had much more senior involvement in the crime. "Those who ordered the crime are very senior officials, and they are fighting among themselves," Rysbek Sarsenbaev said. "Utembaev and Ibragimov are just puppets in their hands. And those who pull those puppets' strings are still hiding in the shadows. They haven't even been found yet."

Some speculate that Senate leader Nurtai Abykaev, who is next in line to be leader of the country, was involved. Others said Nazarbaev's former son-in-law Rakhat Aliev ordered the killing. Aliev is now divorced from Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha. A Kazakh court recently convicted him of serious crimes and sentenced him in absentia to 20 years in prison, but Aliev remains in exile in Austria.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service in October 2007, Aliev accused his former father-in-law of ordering the killing. "The order for the elimination of Altynbek Sarsenbaev was given from the territory of Austria, when President Nazarbaev was on holiday in Klagenfurt, Austria, in early February 2006, where [Abykaev] came just for a few hours," Aliev said.

For Kazakh authorities, the Sarsenbaev killing is a closed issue. State media did not note this week's anniversary, and only a few independent media outlets mentioned it.

But for the beleaguered Kazakh opposition, the murder remains an open wound.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)

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