ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The widow of a man killed during anti-government unrest in Kazakhstan in January says authorities have pressured her in an apparent bid to gain testimony that fits the government’s narrative of the deadly uprising.
Yermek Kebekbaev, a 42-year-old businessman, was fatally shot by security forces on January 6 near Almaty's central square where security forces clamped down on protesters.
His widow, Aqtoty Kebekbaeva, says he was driving home from a gas station when the incident happened. According to the passenger in Kebekbaev’s car, the men were hit by bullets fired from armored personnel carriers.
Kebekbaev was killed instantly and the passenger wounded.
Kebekbaev’s body was found by his family at an Almaty morgue the following day. His car, sporting several bullet holes, was found near the square.
Kazakh authorities maintain that government forces did not fire at unarmed protesters or passersby. They say security forces targeted “armed criminals” and “foreign-trained terrorists,” although no evidence has been provided to back claims that such people were present at the protests.
Kebekbaeva says she has faced “threats” and “pressure” from law enforcement officers investigating the killing of her husband.
The mother of three told RFE/RL that the investigators have summoned her for questioning multiple times and paid several unannounced visits to her home to interrogate her.
Kebekbaeva claims authorities are trying to portray her dead husband as a “terrorist.” She insists he was just an innocent bystander.
“They treat me as if I’m the wife of a terrorist. They ask, ‘why did he go there, why did you bury his body so quickly?’” the 29-year-old widow said. According to an Islamic tradition that dictates the body should be buried as soon as possible, Kebekbaev’s burial took place on the same day it was discovered at the morgue.
“They threaten me that I would be sent to prison if I give false testimony. They put pressure on me,” she added.
Many witnesses of the January unrest have repeatedly accused the army and police of shooting at unarmed people, both protesters and those caught in the crossfire. There were many elderly people and children among the more than 238 victims Kazakh authorities say died in the nationwide unrest that began with a protest over a fuel-price increase in western Kazakhstan.
Many people believe the death toll could be considerably higher than the official account.
But authorities have rejected calls for an independent probe into the killings.
Suffering In Silence
“There were so many dead bodies in the morgue. There were also bodies outside the morgue on the streets because there was no space left inside,” Kebekbaeva said.
She wants to know who killed her husband and why he and “so many other people” had to die during several days of mostly peaceful protesting.
The young family is still trying to come to terms with the tragedy that has struck them. The mother worries that her older children -- a nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son -- are deeply traumatized by the loss of their father.
“My son cries while hiding under a blanket, so I don’t see his tears.… My eldest daughter also tries hard not to show she is upset,” she said. Her youngest child, who is five, still doesn’t know his father is dead.
Kebekbaeva says the visits by investigators have left her children “fearful of any loud noise and knocks on the door.”
“The officers come without letting us know in advance, sometimes they come when I’ve popped into the grocery store and the children are alone at home,” she said, adding that she has asked the officials not to come unannounced. But such visits haven’t stopped.
The death of the only breadwinner has also left the family facing financial hardship and an uncertain future. Kebekbaeva relies on the $140 monthly assistance she gets from the state. But that money is not enough for food and other essentials, such as rent for their modest Almaty apartment.
And there is no one to turn to for help since Kebekbaeva’s parents have died and her in-laws are old and frail.
Kebekbaeva is looking for work, but she doesn’t know who would look after her children while she’s at work.
“We had a normal life -- my husband drove the children to school, he worked to earn money for the family, he brought home food and clothes,” she said. “We miss him terribly.”