Kazakh ex-minister convicted of savage torture and murder of wife in trial that gripped nation

Kazakh ex-minister convicted of savage torture and murder of wife in trial that gripped nation
Saltanat Nukenova died of brain trauma caused during the eight-hour ordeal. / kazTAG, open source
By Peter Baunov in Astana May 14, 2024

A former economy minister of Kazakhstan, Kuandyk Bishimbayev, on May 13 was handed a 24-year prison sentence for the brutal torture and murder of his wife, Saltanat Nukenova, 31, whom he subjected to a horrendous ordeal lasting eight hours.

The trial, broadcast live, gripped the nation, with released CCTV footage showing much of the savage assault. It raised the issue of the disturbing level of domestic violence in the country, with perpetrators, frequently people with elite connections and money, often going unpunished.

The judge convicted Bishimbayev, 44, of "murder with special cruelty" and "torture". As the verdict was read out, Bishimbayev could be seen gasping “Why?” and slumping down in the dock, holding his head in his hands.

Despite the long sentence, it was a far cry from the life term demanded by many including members of his astrologer wife’s family. However, Nukenova’s brother Aitbek Amangeldi spoke after the verdict, saying: “This prison term was one of the options we expected. Generally, we stop here, this term is enough. In 24 years, he will be 68. It's basically a life sentence.”

The sensational trial, which has also garnered much international attention, was considered by many as a crucial test of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s commitment to enhancing women's rights. Many in the Central nation also viewed the case as offering government officials the chance to make an effort to demonstrate that elite members of Kazakh society are no longer above the law.

The trial sparked widespread anger and outpourings of emotion from both men and women in the country, possibly contributing to a lasting shift in attitudes towards domestic violence.

It was the sense of this potential shift that may have prompted Karina Mamash, the wife of Saken Mamash, an advisor to the Kazakh ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the determination to go public with a video message outlining allegations of domestic abuse against her husband. She wrote to an online feminist group, NeMolchi.kz, leading to Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov publicly announcing that Saken Mamash would be recalled and dismissed

The social resonance of Nukenova’s tragic death last November also led to tens of thousands of Kazakhs signing a petition demanding tougher measures against perpetrators of domestic violence. Last month, senators approved a bill, dubbed "Saltanat's Law", that toughens spousal abuse laws and criminalises the act of domestic violence. Some critics, however, have described the legislation as full of holes. For instance, it fails to explicitly criminalise domestic violence as a standalone offence.

Kuandyk Bishimbayev and Saltanat Nukenova in an undated photograph (Credit: social media).

Throughout the trial, footage from surveillance cameras displayed Bishimbayev's repeated acts of violence against Nukenova during the torture, including punching, kicking, strangling and dragging by the hair. She was pulled into a room where she later died on November 9, with brain trauma determined as the cause of death.

The video footage was so disturbing that members of the jury wept in court.

Additionally, videos retrieved from the mobile phone of Bishimbayev, once known as a “golden boy” of Kazakh politics, mobile phone depicted him insulting and demeaning Nukenova, who was visibly bruised and bloodied, in the hours leading up to her loss of consciousness.

During the trial, Bishimbayev acknowledged assaulting his wife but claimed that some of her injuries were self-inflicted. He denied any intent to torture or kill her. 

Bishimbayev served as the country's economy minister from May to December 2016. He was convicted of bribery in 2018 and received a 10-year prison sentence. However, he was granted an early release, after serving less than three years in prison, due to an amnesty and parole.

President Tokayev, who succeeded long-time Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev five years ago, has expressed his commitment to creating a fairer society with enhanced women's rights. 

Government statistics show that one in six women in Kazakhstan have suffered violence at the hands of a male partner. UN statistics say that around 400 women die due to spousal violence in the country every year, though the actual death toll could be far greater than that.