Kazakhstan: Death of ex-official’s wife sparks conversation around domestic abuse

Kazakhstan: Death of ex-official’s wife sparks conversation around domestic abuse
Kuandyk Bishimbayev and Saltanat Nukenova seen in an undated photograph. / social media
By Almaz Kumenov for Eurasianet November 15, 2023

The death last week of a woman, allegedly at the hands of her husband, a former top-ranking official in Kazakhstan’s government, is sparking fresh public calls for more to be done to combat spousal abuse.

Over the weekend, a court in the capital, Astana, ordered that Kuandyk Bishimbayev, a 43-year-old whose meteoric rise through the ranks was cut short by a corruption scandal in 2018, be held in jail for at least two months pending investigations. 

The exact circumstances around what Bishimbayev may have done remain murky, not least as he appears to have engaged in a coverup in the immediate wake of the incident. What is known is that Bishimbayev was detained on November 9 after his wife’s body was discovered bearing signs of a violent death. Saltanat Nukenova was 31-years-old.

Bishimbayev and Nukenova had been dining at a restaurant in Astana when an argument broke out between them. That night, the restaurant, which belongs to the couple, was closed to the public. Video surveillance of the scene showed Bishimbayev savagely beating Nukenova, according to media reports.

News website Orda cited police sources as saying the former minister initially sought to cover his tracks. He reportedly called his brother and asked him to have the staff leave the premises of the restaurant. Bishimbayev is then said to have had the CCTV footage deleted and to have asked his brother to carry his wife’s phone to a gym she regularly frequented and then home as the geolocation data would lend the impression she was still alive at the time.

Things turned out entirely differently, however. Bishimbayev’s brother called an ambulance, after which medics were able to confirm that Nukenova was dead.

Medical examiners have said they found bruising on Nukenova’s body and head. Investigators were able to recover the deleted CCTV footage. The working assumption is that she may have succumbed to a powerful blow to the head with a blunt object. Further investigations are ongoing.

KazTag news agency quoted its law enforcement sources as saying Bishimbayev threatened to stab himself as he was being detained.

Bishimbayev has been behind bars before. A court in March 2018 found him guilty of accepting large bribes and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. He was, however, released on parole the following year. Before his arrest, Bishimbayev, who holds an MBA from George Washington University, held a number of senior government positions and once served as an assistant to former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

People close to the Bishimbayev family have alleged in the wake of Nukenova’s death that her husband frequently abused his wife. Orda quoted Nukenova’s friend, Linara Smagulova, as saying she had often seen bruises and scars left by those assaults.

The death has reawakened public discussions around the problem of domestic violence – namely, how the police routinely fail to act to prevent it.

Well-known lawyer Zhanna Muhamadi wrote on her Facebook account that in Kazakhstan the police limit themselves, when receiving reports of spousal assault, to issuing warnings. She said, although without citing specific examples, that men found to have killed their wives are given light sentences.

The Children's Rights Commissioner for Almaty, Khalida Azhigulova, argued that Kazakhstan was the only country in the world where “a concussion, and fractured ribs, limbs, and jaws” are regarded as mere minor injuries for which a judge need only issue a written warning to the suspected perpetrator.

“This is a disgrace for our country,” Azhigulova wrote on Facebook. “[Our laws] are adopted only to please rapists and psychopaths … so that they can continue to abuse their loved ones … with impunity.”

Activists point among other things to a development from 2017, when MPs struck domestic violence from the Criminal Code. The articles criminalising “deliberate infliction of minor harm to health” and “battery” were transferred to the Administrative Code.

In September, Amantay Zharkynbek, an MP from the ruling Amanat party, reportedly said that in cases where a husband is found guilty of domestic violence and placed under arrest for 15 days, wives should be held accountable for “provocation” and be kept in custody for a similar period.

In 2022, police in Kazakhstan received more than 115,000 calls reporting domestic violence. That was a marked drop on 2020, the year when COVID-19 lockdowns were being enforced, when the figure spiked to 180,000.

Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.