In Kazakhstan, the truth about the 2022 deadly protests is still suppressed

Crowd outside of the court building in Almaty. Photo by Akbota Uzbekbay. Used with permission.

This article was written by Almas Kaisar for An edited version is republished on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement.

On January 5, 2022, during violent anti-government protests, a group of protesters went to the Almaty airport, after learning that Kazakhstan had turned to the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for help. They worried that a Russian military contingent could be flying into Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, which was the epicenter of the protests. By the time they arrived, the police had already left the building.

Together with other people, these protesters were looking for the control tower to demand that they switch off the green light. Once they were told that Russian troops were not flying into the city at that time, they left the airport.

A year and a half later, those five protesters were sentenced to four to eight years in prison for “attacking, as well as seizing the airport” and “participating in, as well as organizing, mass riots.” In reality, witnesses said they were not threatened or hurt. The court still found them guilty, as required by the prosecution.

A case with only one possible outcome

On July 11, the judge quickly read the verdicts and hastily asked for someone to translate the sentence from Russian into Kazakh. At that time, in the courtroom, dozens of people were screaming, showing a banner that read: “The people are not terrorists!”

Aigerim Tleuzhanova is a journalist and civic activist, Kalas Nurpeisov is a history teacher and civic activist, Nurlan Dalibayev, Yermukhamet Shilibayev and Zhan-Aidar Karmenov are ordinary citizens who were worried about the fate of the country. None of them pleaded guilty.

Perhaps no one expected an acquittal, because as early as January 5, 2023, the country’s Prosecutor General Berik Assylov had already said that Tleuzhanova was “a member of an extremist religious organization” and “the mastermind of the airport hijacking.”

Moreover, an acquittal would have undercut President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s version of the events: “the capturing of the airport was a key step to ensure the passage of militants to the city,” he had said. Without this, like a house of cards, all other statements about “attacks from outside” would collapse.

Bloody January of 2022

The protests started on January 2, 2022 in the western city of Zhanaozen after a steep increase in the price of the liquified petroleum gas used to power the majority of cars in the country. They quickly spread to other regions, including the financial capital Almaty in southern Kazakhstan, and acquired broader demands for social justice and political change. According to the authorities, 238 people died during the deadly protests, which came to be called Qandy Qantar (Bloody January).

As protests turned violent, Tokayev gave the order to shoot to kill without warning, stating that 20,000 local and foreign “bandits” and “terrorists” were attempting to topple the government. CSTO member states approved Kazakhstan’s request to send troops and dispatched over 2,000 soldiers, who guarded government buildings and critical infrastructure objects in the country.

However, the events that unfolded in the aftermath of the protests suggested that they were the outcome of the political struggle between Tokayev and the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled over Kazakhstan between 1991 and 2019. Soon after the events, Nazarbayev stepped down from his role as the Chairman of the Security Council, a post he planned to occupy for life. His appointees among political and business elites were removed from their posts and/or given prison sentences. Nazarbayev’s close ally and former head of the National Security Service, Karim Masimov was found as the the main culprit of the failed coup attempt and sentenced to 18 years in prison for treason.

Discrediting popular protests

The defendants in the case reported, among other violations, the inhuman conditions of their detention and the prosecution offering them deals in exchange for testimony against each other. They said that the investigators deliberately misled them.

The court cases around Qandy Qantar seem to have a specific set of goals: to disenfranchise those who came out to protest, to deprive the people of Kazakhstan of truth and justice, and to ban political participation and self-organization without state control. The country's leadership allows no space to heal the collective trauma associated with Qandy Qantar, as well as with many other bloody events in the country's history.

For a year and a half, the authorities have not released a complete list of the victims, along with the circumstances of their death. The population was never shown the results of the investigation that would supposedly reveal the truth about the events. Instead, people who took to the streets because of injustice have been branded criminals and bandits, and the country is left to drown in conspiracy theories.

Until the truth is obtained and justice is achieved in the courts, the Kazakhstani people will remain hostages of those bloody events and continue to live in a stunned society, torn apart by internal conflicts.

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