Accessibility links

Breaking News

'No Longer Indifferent To Politics': Man Shot In Bloody Kazakh Unrest Boycotts Election, Wants Change

Sayat Adilbekuly says that similar unrest will reoccur if the same politicians and officials remain in power.
Sayat Adilbekuly says that similar unrest will reoccur if the same politicians and officials remain in power.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Sayat Adilbekuly's New Year's resolution for 2022 was to learn how to create fun videos and try to gain 10,000 new followers on his Instagram page.

But just a few days into the new year, the 30-year-old amateur photographer from Almaty saw his life turned upside-down when he was shot and seriously wounded in the bloody January riots that shook Kazakhstan.

But that wasn't all.

Adilbekuly was taken from his hospital bed to an Almaty jail, where he says he was mistreated and wrongly accused of taking part in the unrest that killed more than 230 people. It took seven months and many court appearances for the father of one to finally clear his name.

Adilbekuly says the painful experience has changed his life and worldview.

A once self-confessed "apolitical" young man whose favorite pastime was taking nature photos, he has since become deeply interested in Kazakh politics, which he believes must change.

Adilbekuly insists he was a mere passerby that got caught in the turmoil as thousands of people moved toward the Almaty city center on the evening on January 5 after protests against a hike in gas taxes in the western part of the country spurred nationwide anti-government protests.

A doctor's prescription in his hand, Adilbekuly says he went to buy medicine for his infant daughter. Most pharmacies were closed because of the crisis situation and Adilbekuly ended up at a drugstore in Hospital N7, not far from Almaty's central square, the epicenter of impending unrest that night.

Adilbekuly says a crowd pressing toward the square urged him to join them, telling him: "Are you a Kazakh? Come with us, we need people."

Adilbekuly joined the crowd. A few moments later, he sustained a gunshot to his back that wounded his right kidney. Adilbekuly was taken to Hospital N7, where he underwent surgery.

Almaty later became the scene of chaos, with several government buildings set ablaze, businesses looted, and the airport briefly stormed. There were casualties among the protesters, bystanders, and even some security forces.

Despite joining the protesters moving toward the central square, Adilbekuly denies having any agenda or even being aware of what's been going on in the country.

Jail, Mistreatment, Wrongfully Charged

Three days after the incident, the police moved Adilbekuly and many other wounded men to a detention center, where he says they were beaten and tortured.

Adilbekuly still had a catheter and surgical drains attached to his wound following surgery when the officers came to arrest him. "They pulled out the drains. Such was the attitude toward us, as if we were some kind of criminals," he said.

Adilbekuly recalls one detainee being in agony after officers allegedly poured boiling water on him during an interrogation. The officers demanded the detainees confess to "raping nurses, beheading a soldier," and "seizing a government building," Adilbekuly told RFE/RL.

He was forced to sign two documents without being allowed to read them. Based on the "confession," he was charged with taking part in the riots.

Adilbekuly spent more than two weeks in jail, where the detainees "got only two sachets of [instant] soup a day" and went hungry most of the time.

Adilbekuly was released in late January on the condition he not leave the city, as his trial was still pending. Desperate to resume treatment for his wounds, he returned to Hospital N7 but claims he was refused medical treatment.

"A doctor in the emergency room told me they had instructions not to provide treatment for [rioters]," Adilbekuly said. "When I returned the following day and demanded a written explanation, they agreed to attend to my wound. Since then, I've been receiving treatment in private clinics."

RFE/RL cannot independently verify his claims.

New Values

Adilbekuly's defense lawyer was eventually able to prove his innocence and the charges against him were dropped on August 1. But Adilbekuly lost his battle to bring to justice the officers he accuses of torturing him and many others in custody.

The case against the officers was closed in June, with investigators concluding there was no evidence to support the accusation -- despite hundreds of former detainees also claiming they were severely beaten and mistreated by officers in detention facilities.

Kazakh authorities have admitted that torture and other illegal methods of interrogation took place in cases involving the protesters.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said six people were tortured to death and some two dozen were officially considered victims of torture using hot irons, which they said investigators used on them during interrogations.

Several officers of the Committee for National Security and the police were arrested and charged with torturing detainees.

Adilbekuly says the January events have completely changed him. "I see the world in a completely different way, I watch and read more about politics and politicians, because I realize that they influence my life," he told RFE/RL.

Adilbekuly didn't vote in the November 20 presidential election that saw authoritarian President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev secure a new term in office in a managed vote.

He has never voted in an election because of his proclaimed lack of interest in politics, but he says it was different this time. This time it was a political stance -- a protest against the system that Adilbekuly says needs to change. "I decided to boycott the election because I didn't want to help the turnout. I don't believe in the entire election campaign, especially in the candidates," he said.

Adilbekuly also believes now in the power of the media and free speech. "I realized that when you're in trouble you shouldn't stay silent. I was able to stay alive just because I decided to speak up about my situation on social media, where I spoke to [various media] and rights defenders," he said.

"I believe they do a great job. If I am not in prison today, it's because they made my story public."

He has no faith in Toqaev's so-called "new," reformed Kazakhstan and is not optimistic about the country's future as long as the same officials are in place.

"Those who shot at people, tortured, and killed people in January are still in power, and they still make decisions about other people's lives," Adilbekuly said. "They didn't get punished, so it means another 'January tragedy' could happen again."

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by Zhannat Nugmanova of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

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

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.