Kazakhstan: Masimov gets 18-year sentence over Bloody January events

Kazakhstan: Masimov gets 18-year sentence over Bloody January events
Masimov, right in the defendant's cage in glasses, seen in a handout photo shared by the Astana court. / Official handout
By Almaz Kumenov for Eurasianet April 25, 2023

A court in Kazakhstan has sentenced the once-powerful former head of the security services, Karim Masimov, to 18 years in prison on charges of high treason over what his accusers say was his role in orchestrating nationwide unrest in January 2022.

The judge presiding over the Specialised Inter-district Criminal Court in Astana also ruled on April 24 to strip Masimov of the right to hold public office in perpetuity. 

The trial has been held under a heavy cloak of secrecy – a fact that has denied the public any opportunity to gain any more of an understanding of the circumstances that led, in the government’s narrative, to violence that claimed the lives of at least 238 people.

Masimov’s former deputies in the National Security Committee, or KNB – Anvar Sadykulov, Daulet Yergozhin and Marat Osipov – were all found guilty of various charges, ranging from treason to abuse of office, and sentenced to 16, 15 and three years in prison, respectively.

The press service for the court said in its statement that investigators also managed to recover up to $46mn in unlawfully appropriated funds.  

That Masimov is alleged to have committed treason is all that prosecutors have divulged. How exactly he is said to have done it remains largely a mystery. 

The events that culminated in the bloodshed that turned the city of Almaty upside down on January 5-6 last year started in a distant region in western Kazakhstan.

In the first days of the year, residents of the town of Zhanaozen mounted pickets in protest at a steep increase in the price for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is used to fuel automobiles. That demonstration inspired other spontaneous nationwide gatherings that evolved quickly into a broader show of discontent toward the government.

In Almaty, a large and peaceful evening march held on the evening of January 4 was roughly dispersed by the police. The following day, an apparently different and far more violent crowd of people turned up in a downtown square, clashed with police and set light to buildings.

State prosecutors have made a series of claims about the events of that day. One is that senior KNB officials and other law enforcement leaders purposely failed to take action to put a stop to the unrest. The suggestion made by investigators is that plotters were knowingly fanning the chaos and political tension as a prelude to seizing power. Another is that mobs involved in instigating the violence were not protestors at all, but co-conspirators in an elaborate plot to overthrow the government. 

The implication is that Masimov was ultimately directing the entire strategy. Even as the turmoil was still unfolding, many commentators suggested that disaffected relatives of the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019, may also have been involved in the plotting, but prosecutors have never publicly come out in support of this hypothesis.

Either way, Masimov resigned on January 6 and was arrested one day later.

Following his downfall, Masimov’s accusers undertook notable efforts to cast him not just as a power-hungry schemer, but also a beneficiary of unbridled corruption. In March, two months after his arrest, the KNB released what it said was evidence of its former head’s greed. This included photos of mansions, luxury Swiss watches, a huge fleet of premium cars and suitcases full of dollars all said to belong to the former KNB chief.

Prosecutors stopped short of ever accusing Nazarbayev or his immediate relatives, all of whom long enjoyed Masimov’s loyalty, of anything similar. Nazarbayev’s behind-the-scenes influence has rapidly evaporated, however.

Even while the unrest was still roiling in January 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev removed his predecessor from his influential position as head of the domestic Security Council. In the months that followed, numerous Nazarbayev cronies were shunted out of their positions in power, and some were even arrested and prosecuted. 

Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.