ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- This wasn’t the picture that most people associate with domestic violence.
The suspect: a boyish-looking 43-year-old who was once the country’s youngest-ever minister and who enjoyed wealth and privilege beyond most of his compatriots’ dreams.
The victim: his fashionable wife, a self-professed astrologist who was beaten to death at the age of 31.
The location: a plush restaurant in an Astana food court co-owned by the suspect’s family.
It was not the first time Kazakhstan has exploded the myth that the problem of violence against women can be reduced to families living on the breadline in dilapidated apartments or in far-flung villages.
And it was not the first time that women are asking if this might just be the tragedy that leads to change and toward a system that protects rather than punishes them.
“We don’t want the resonance from this case to die down and for everyone to act as if everything is normal, because it is not,” said Aleksandra Akanaeva, editor in chief of The Village, a Kazakh media website.
“We want zero tolerance now. In my opinion, our laws are disgusting. How can you say otherwise when one-in-three women say they have experienced some form of violence?” Akanaeva told RFE/RL.
But career activists remain skeptical that there is political will to revise the status quo.
'Never Seen So Many Wounds'
First, to the tragedy.
Former National Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev and his spouse, Saltanat Nukenova, had been married for less than a year at the time of her death.
Nukenova was Bishimbaev’s third wife.
His second wife, Nazym, supported him over the course of his arrest, trial, and imprisonment in a corruption case that cut short the political career of perhaps the fastest-rising official of Kazakhstan’s independence era.
But their marriage ended not long after his release -- two years into a 10-year sentence -- under an amnesty in 2019.
Like Bishimbaev, whose father was one of the country’s most decorated university rectors and a reputed friend of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Nukenova’s family was involved in politics.
After her death in a VIP room of the Bau restaurant on November 9, Nukenova’s uncle, the former governor of Pavlodar, Qairat Nukenov, gave an interview in which he raised doubts about the objectivity of the investigation.
Speaking to Pavlodar-based journalist Bolat Amanbaev on November 12, Nukenov claimed that the women who had washed his niece’s corpse had “emerged petrified” from the experience.
“They had washed a lot of corpses, and they had never seen so many wounds on a woman’s body,” Nukenov said, also accusing Bishimbaev’s supporters of paying bloggers to spread false rumors about Nukenova.
Beyond the apparently heavy blows to the head sustained by Nukenova during the alleged assault, one especially disturbing detail in media reports that have emerged in lieu of sparse police statements about the incident is that Nukenova probably did not die quickly.
She may have even been kept in the restaurant for an extended period before an ambulance was finally called and a dazed-looking Bishimbaev was detained.
Astana police stated on November 12 that related charges of failing to report a crime and criminal neglect were being brought in connection with the case.
On the same day it became known that the director of the Gastro Center food court was under arrest on suspicion of covering up a crime.
The Bishimbaev family has refused to comment on the case.
'The Law Is The Same For All'
Even in a week where Nazarbaev’s infamous younger brother Bolat Nazarbaev died, Nukenova’s death has received rolling coverage in the press and on social media.
At present, a petition calling for stronger punishment for domestic abusers has more than 100,000 signatories -- well over the threshold required for authorities to have to consider the demand.
On November 15, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev held a meeting with Interior Minister Erzhan Sadenov, Prosecutor-General Berik Asylov, and Supreme Court Chairman Aslambek Merghaliev, among others, ordering them to give special attention to the case, while reminding them that “the law is the same for all.”
It was necessary to “decisively combat any instances of violence against women and children,” Toqaev added.
But despite some 400 women dying every year from violence, according to United Nations statistics, Kazakh law enforcement has a habit of shrugging when it comes such a mandate.
In May, an Interior Ministry spokesman stated that only 17 percent of suspected wife beaters had faced punishment -- mostly administrative -- in the first months of 2023.
The reason, he said, was that complainants tend to withdraw their complaints against their abusers.
But many rights defenders argue that the system actively encourages them to do just that.
That contention was backed up in a video widely shared online last week in which a woman can be heard crying as a policeman -- apparently outside her front door -- tried to persuade her to withdraw a criminal complaint against a man.
“Tomorrow it will be difficult for you to prove it,” the policeman warns her, while suggesting that she was wasting money by hiring a lawyer.
The woman in the video, an Almaty resident named Ulzhan, has issued a desperate online appeal to Toqaev to help her secure justice after describing how a man who she did not know snuck into her apartment in the center of the city and raped her.
But Gulzada Serzhan, a rights activist and the co-founder of the Feminita movement, told RFE/RL that it is corruption that often drives police to make such offers to complainants.
“The abuser wants to buy his way out of trouble. Then perhaps there are other factors, like male solidarity, and the police leadership’s desire to minimize the number of cases open that require investigation,” said Serzhan. "This is the system."
A Film Called 'Happiness'
As if Nukenova’s death in Astana and the horrific story surrounding Ulzhan’s appeal to Toqaev weren’t enough, a shocking piece of news from the southern city of Taldyqorghon has added to revulsion over the state of that justice system.
On November 13, the Zhetysu provincial police department announced that a policeman had been detained on suspicion of raping a 27-year-old resident of the city “while performing official duties.”
The suspect is thought to be not just any policeman but the city’s chief of police, Marat Kushtybaev, who media say had been identified as a suspect in a rape case before the announcement was made.
Just as Bishimbaev’s arrest has breathed new life into the question of why he was released from his jail sentence for corruption in 2019, so it is the same with Kushtybaev.
The police boss had in the past been cautioned and suspended after audio of him verbally abusing subordinates surfaced online.
And it is those subordinates who are on the front lines of the battle with violence against women.
Back in 2020, the first year of Toqaev’s presidency, rights groups were speaking positively about a draft law that would have strengthened protections for survivors of domestic abuse. But after passing a first reading in parliament, it hit the skids.
Since then, legislative improvements have been piecemeal.
Just two months ago, a lawmaker from the ruling Amanat political party dared to suggest that women should face administrative punishments for “provoking abuse” -- a proposal that the international watchdog Human Rights Watch said pointed to “a deep-seated culture of victim-blaming.”
Yet, even if the authorities are reluctant to reopen the conversation about gender-based violence, independent and influential voices are having their say.
Last year saw the Kazakh film Baqyt (Happiness), which was centered around domestic violence, win the Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. The screenplay was written by journalist and activist Asem Zhapisheva, directed by Asqar Uzabaev, and produced by media personality Bayan Alagozova.
It was in some ways a brutal attack on Alagozova carried out by her then-husband Baqytbek Esentaev in 2016 that eased the taboo surrounding discussions of violence against women in Kazakhstan.
Esentaev served jail time for the attack and was released early -- with Alagozova’s blessing -- last year.
In 2020 -- the year of the COVID-19 pandemic and an annus horriblus for domestic violence worldwide -- there were 180,000 complaints of domestic violence in Kazakhstan versus a prepandemic average of 50,000, and the figure has been above 100,000 since then.
WATCH: When 29-year-old Symbat Kulzhagharova fell to her death from her 11th-floor apartment in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, the police said it was suicide. Kulzhagharova's social-media posts claiming she was being beaten by her husband have raised doubts about this, and some 70,000 people have signed a petition demanding tougher punishment for domestic violence.
In an interview earlier this year for RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Manshuk Asautai’s podcast Zere, Zhapisheva said the recent rise in cases likely shows that women feel more able to overcome the stigma surrounding speaking out than in the past.
Zhapisheva said that she wrote Baqyt “to mirror our lives, to reflect the reality in our society.”
“[Kazakhs] have always concealed things. We ask, ‘What would people say?’ and feel ashamed. But we would like to be seen as happy and well-off. So we chose the title Happiness as a manifestation of that hypocrisy,” Zhapisheva said.
“Because for Kazakhs, happiness means you are seen by others as being happy. Even if you are not really happy and there is no happiness in your home. If people think there is, then there is no happier person than you.”