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No Compassion? Paralyzed Former Islamic State Militant Seeks Release From Kazakh Prison

Kazakh military personnel escort a family as they are repatriated from Syria during Operation Zhusan in 2019.
Kazakh military personnel escort a family as they are repatriated from Syria during Operation Zhusan in 2019.

ATYRAU, Kazakhstan -- When Yermukhan Aiypqaliev left his native Kazakhstan for Syria in 2014, he was a healthy 29-year-old man, dreaming "to live in a just society" that he thought he saw on Islamic State (IS) propaganda videos.

Fast-forward nine years and Aiypqaliev -- paralyzed from the waist down by shrapnel in Syria, and claiming to be disillusioned with the extremist group -- is seeking an early release from a Kazakh prison on compassionate grounds.

The Kazakh authorities, however, have rejected Aiypqaliev's appeals, saying there are "no extenuating circumstances" in the former militant's case to qualify him for parole. The court says Aiypqaliev has failed to cooperate with government efforts to combat terrorism.

Wheelchair-bound Aiypqaliev and his wife, Ulmeken, were among some 800 Kazakh citizens the government in Astana repatriated from Syria and Iraq after the IS collapsed.

About 50 of the returnees were jailed in Kazakhstan on terrorism-related offenses. Others who were cleared by the security services were allowed to return to their native cities and communities and try to rebuild their lives.

Aiypqaliev was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2019 for "joining a terrorist group" and "undertaking terrorism and extremism training."

According to his wife, Aiypqaliev "regretted" his decision to go to Syria immediately after they arrived in IS-controlled territory.

Yermukhan Aiypqaliev
Yermukhan Aiypqaliev

"We were deceived by the Islamic State propaganda videos," Ulmeken told RFE/RL. "We didn't go to Syria to fight, we went there to start a new life under Shari'a laws. We made a mistake, but we realized it too late."

Ulmeken claims her husband and several of his friends wanted to escape IS and go back home. But they were too afraid after IS beheaded one of the Kazakh fighters when he revealed his plans to leave, Ulmeken says.

Aiypqaliev attended training sessions by IS on how to use arms and was given a weapon, Ulmeken recalls. Aiypqaliev fought with the IS for three years until shrapnel from an air strike struck his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down in 2017.

The couple returned to Kazakhstan in 2019 on a flight arranged by the government as part of special repatriation operation called Zhusan.

Give Me A Death Sentence

Aiypqaliev attended his trial at the time in an Astana court via video link from a hospital, with 13 other co-defendants -- former IS militants aged between 25 and 50 -- taking part in person.

The men were all found guilty of terrorism-related offenses and given prison terms ranging from eight to 14 years.

Speaking from the prison hospital, Aiypqaliev pleaded with the court to give him "the death sentence."

"I am already punished by God," he said. "I am like a living corpse. Only my head and heart work."

The following year, Aiypqaliev was transferred to a prison compound in his home city of Atyrau in an oil-rich region in western Kazakhstan. Ulmeken says her husband depends on the help of a 22-year-old fellow inmate who feeds him and changes his clothes and adult diapers.

"But it's not enough," Ulmeken said. "He needs comprehensive care."

A medical team that assessed Aiypqaliev's health concluded that his condition was not on the list of ailments approved by the Health Ministry for early release. Contrary to the family's claim, the doctors said that Aiypqaliev's general condition hadn't deteriorated since his imprisonment.

A court in Astana tries 14 Kazakhs repatriated from Syria on terrorism-related charges in December 2019.
A court in Astana tries 14 Kazakhs repatriated from Syria on terrorism-related charges in December 2019.

Aiypqaliev is serving his sentence in a medical unit of the prison "under the supervision of health workers," Qairat Shonaev, acting head of the Atyrau Penitentiary Department, told RFE/RL.

Aiypqaliev applied for parole twice, in August and December 2022, but his petition was rejected both times by a court.

A copy of the court ruling seen by RFE/RL says Aiypqaliev "has been imprisoned for committing terrorist offenses. He also failed to contribute to the prevention, exposure, or investigation of terrorist crimes, or the exposure of members of terrorist or extremist groups."

"In such cases, the petition of the convict is subject to rejection," the August 10 court ruling said.

Yermukhan Aipkaliev's wife, Ulmeken (left) and his mother call for his early release from prison.
Yermukhan Aipkaliev's wife, Ulmeken (left) and his mother call for his early release from prison.

Kazakhstan's National Security Committee said in July 2018 that more than 800 Kazakh nationals -- including many women and children -- had left for Syria and Iraq since 2013 to join IS.

Some were killed in fighting and air strikes and others returned home on their own before the Zhusan operations began. Dozens of children were also born to Kazakhs in the conflict zone.

The Kazakh government has pledged to repatriate all its citizens from Syria and Iraq and help them rehabilitate and reintegrate back to society.

Most Kazakhs support their government's stance on repatriation. But some treat the former militants and their wives with caution and question whether they have genuinely abandoned the ideology that drove them to join IS in the first place.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Ainur Saparova of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
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    Ainur Saparova

    Ainur Saparova is a freelance correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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