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Victims Of Kazakh Justice System Press To Clear Names, Reform Corrupt Courts

A Kazakh woman expresses anger outside the courthouse at a July 11, 2023, sentencing in the case of the Almaty airport seizure during the Bloody January events.
A Kazakh woman expresses anger outside the courthouse at a July 11, 2023, sentencing in the case of the Almaty airport seizure during the Bloody January events.

ASTANA -- A series of scars that run horizontally across Rustem Amangeldy’s forearm recall a prison sentence that redefined his life and later his work as an anti-corruption activist in Kazakhstan.

“I simply couldn’t come to terms with the unfairness. They were telling me that I was a thief, but I knew that I wasn’t. They couldn’t even be bothered to fabricate the evidence against me well enough to make it believable,” said Amangeldy, who co-owned a construction company at the time he was investigated for embezzlement.

Amangeldy survived a suicide attempt in 2012 and walked free in 2016 after four hard years in prison.

During the first year of his freedom he slept with his eyes half open -- a habit ingrained in him from his time behind bars.

But when it comes to Kazakhstan’s justice system, his eyes are wide open -- and he is not the only one.

Amangeldy is one of hundreds of Kazakhs who are joining forces to call for a special commission to review controversial court rulings and promote broader justice reform.

The diverse group of “convicts” and those who have lost administrative cases even recently formed a public association to lobby the government that is called New Kazakhstan, Fair Kazakhstan.

Four members of New Kazakhstan, Fair Kazakhstan
Four members of New Kazakhstan, Fair Kazakhstan

They are the slogans that President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has trumpeted to establish a break with the legacy of his long-ruling predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, after regime-shaking unrest at the beginning of 2022.

“We want to support these stated aims,” said Amangeldy, who now runs the watchdog-style Altynbas YouTube program on corruption, government policy, and lawlessness in the construction sector, where he once worked.

“Even if they are a long way from reality at the moment,” he added.

'The Bribes Have Been Doled Out'

Almaty-based Amangeldy is not officially a member of New Kazakhstan, Fair Kazakhstan, as legal reasons prevent him from officially joining civic organizations.

But he is one of at least 300 members of a WhatsApp group of the same name that has served as an organizing platform.

They are a diverse bunch.

One of the more vocal members of the group is former Colonel Mukhtar Karabekov, who has been pressing for the reversal of his corruption conviction and other judgments and dismissals concerning more than 200 military officers.

Thus far, fewer than 10 officers have been able to reverse the decisions against them and return to service, he said.

Rustem Amangeldy: “I simply couldn’t come to terms with the unfairness."
Rustem Amangeldy: “I simply couldn’t come to terms with the unfairness."

Other members of the group who met with RFE/RL in the Kazak capital, Astana, included women who lost property in civil lawsuits.

Alia Mamedova has been trying for two years to get the proceeds of a house worth nearly $100,000 that was confiscated in a court ruling.

She is part of a smaller group that has regularly camped outside the Supreme Court and other government buildings in Astana in a bid to get their cases reviewed.

On one occasion, she was arrested and sentenced to nearly a week in administrative detention.

Angelika Glinskaya, who is from the northern city of Pavlodar, contacted RFE/RL when she heard that the group’s struggles were being covered.

Glinskaya claims her husband paid judges to ensure that she emerged from their divorce settlement not only impoverished but in large debt to her former spouse.

Her appeals to Toqaev’s office and the anti-corruption agency have yet to yield any result.

One thing that unites the vast majority of the members of New Kazakhstan, Fair Kazakhstan is their inability to get a proper hearing at Kazakhstan’s highest appeals court -- a fact they say deprives them of a constitutional right.

Instead, they are stuck with the judgments issued at the local level (a district court, followed by a city court) where Karabekov argues “corporate solidarity” solidifies corruption.

The trial of Marat Zhylanbaev, a leader of the unregistered Algha Kazakhstan (Forward Kazakhstan) opposition party in Astana on October 30, 2023.
The trial of Marat Zhylanbaev, a leader of the unregistered Algha Kazakhstan (Forward Kazakhstan) opposition party in Astana on October 30, 2023.

“The Supreme Court doesn’t want to get involved in our cases, because the bribes have already been doled out here and there. Acknowledging these mistakes would require the relevant judges and investigators to be punished. And there are a lot of them,” Karabekov said.

Jury Trials No Panacea

Galym Ageleuov, a rights defender and the director of the Liberty nonprofit, says that second-instance courts “rarely, if ever, look into the substance of the case,” meaning that they don’t affect acquittal rates that are typically lower than 5 percent in such criminal courts.

Those cases that do go to the Supreme Court, in turn, find “a ready decision” as opposed to due process, Ageleuov argued.

Bribe-givers, he said, have multiple paths to influence the court’s decision -- if they cannot access judges directly, they often attempt to reach officials in city administrations who then put pressure on judges.

Toqaev and his administration have so far shown no appetite for any form of lustration, a process that earns its name from an ancient Roman purification ceremony and entails the mass canceling of officials or judges associated with systemic malpractice and corruption.

But after the president’s meeting with Supreme Court Chairman Aslambek Mergaliev in March, his office reported there was an increase in the number of trials by jury.

According to Ageleuov, an expansion of jury trials, including for civil cases, enjoys widespread popular support. But even this system needs to be overhauled, with full transparency in jury selection and rules preventing judges joining jurors in their deliberation.

“At the moment, the judges do everything to form the opinion of the jurors. And the judge is in turn politically dependent,” Ageleuov said.

Amangeldy, the businessman-turned-citizen journalist, has been fighting his case for more than a decade.

Once a millionaire, he now spends “most of [his] annual salary” on legal fees, both to clear his name and try to restore personal, business, and family assets appropriated by the country’s largest bank after a court process that he described as packed with irregularities.

Earlier this year, he won his first small victory when he managed to gain a hearing with Kazakhstan’s deputy prosecutor-general, who agreed that his case deserved consideration.

A prosecutorial protest -- which may now follow -- is one of the few means through which citizens can force a reversal of their verdicts.

Not everyone can get that kind of audience, he acknowledges.

“People like me will use all our resources to address their problems via the legal avenues that the system provides. Other people are at the end of their tether. They can become radicalized, set fire to themselves, or even worse because the system will not hear them,” Amangeldy said.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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