Kazakhstan toughens domestic violence laws

Kazakhstan toughens domestic violence laws
Kuandyk Bishimbayev during a hearing at Astana City Court. He is currently standing trial on charges of domestic abuse and murder of his common law wife, Saltanat Nukenova. The case sparked public outrage and is credited with catalysing government efforts to toughen penalties for domestic violence. / Supreme Court, Kazakhstan, sud.kz
By Almaz Kumenov for Eurasianet April 22, 2024

A vicious beating captured on video has helped spur Kazakhstan’s government to address the issue of domestic violence. A new law makes instances of domestic violence a criminal, not civil offence, toughening penalties for convicted abusers. Human rights advocates have their doubts, however, about the law’s ability to curb violence.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed legal amendments on April 15 to expand definitions and lengthen punishments in cases involving violence against women and children. Prior to the amendments’ approval, most domestic violence cases were treated as administrative matters, not criminal.

The amendments specify that those convicted of domestic violence-related crimes will now face prison time, instead of receiving potentially lesser punishments. The changes also establish mandatory sentencing guidelines for particularly heinous crimes. For example, those convicted of the murder or rape of a minor now will receive a life sentence without a chance of parole.

A presidential statement distributed via Telegram said the amendments, approved by parliament in January, were the outcome of an extensive consultation process involving various governmental agencies, commissions and rights groups. “The adopted amendments were widely discussed with the public,” according to the statement.

Erlan Karin, the secretary of state for public affairs, noted on his Telegram channel that Kazakhstan, as a “result of constructive cooperation between authorities and society,” now has one of the world’s most advanced legal frameworks to combat domestic violence. The next step, Karin indicated, is to promote a change in public attitudes on the issue.

“To effectively combat domestic violence, it is necessary to create in society an atmosphere of intolerance towards aggression in any form,” Karin wrote. He added that the new domestic violence legislation was part of a broader presidential initiative to combat “five vices” in Kazakhstan. The five social ills identified by Karin are drug addiction, gambling addiction, violence and bullying in any form, vandalism and wasteful spending.

A UN representative in Kazakhstan welcomed the legislative changes. “This critical step not only promotes gender equality, but also ensures that survivors of domestic violence have access to justice and support services to rebuild their lives,” said UN resident coordinator in Kazakhstan Michaela Friberg-Story in a statement.

But the task of curtailing domestic violence is not done, Friberg-Story said: authorities must now “effectively implement” the new laws and raise public awareness about domestic violence. “This comprehensive approach is necessary to create a society in which all people can live without fear and violence in their own homes,” Friberg-Story said.

The changes are coming too late to help 31-year-old Saltanat Nukenova, the common law wife of former Minister of National Economy Kuandyk Bishimbayev. Nukenova was found dead last November in a restaurant owned by her husband. A coroner’s report determined she died from blunt-force trauma to her head, also noting extensive bruising to her face, torso and arms. 

The incident sparked public outrage, fuelling broad debate about domestic violence. Bishimbayev is currently standing trial for her beating death. Vivid video footage, taken from a surveillance camera at the restaurant on the night of the incident, showed Bishimbayev repeatedly kicking and punching Nukenova. Bishimbayev has claimed that Nukenova’s injuries were self-inflicted and connected with excessive drinking.

The Nukenova tragedy is widely credited with catalysing government efforts to cover legislative gaps concerning domestic violence. Karin, the state secretary, sought to shield the administration from accusations of inattention to the issue. “From the very beginning of his presidency, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has consistently pursued a line aimed at protecting the rights of women and children,” Karin wrote. “All these years, a system of comprehensive measures to combat domestic violence has been gradually built.”

Human rights activists are applauding the new amendments, but some wonder about the effectiveness of follow-up measures. Raising public awareness about the laws, as well as access to resources, in many areas outside major cities poses a particular challenge for officials. Elena Shvetsova, director of the non-profit organisation Erkindik Kanaty, told Eurasianet that the new legislation will likely succeed in reducing domestic violence in urban centres. But in remote villages, where instances of domestic violence are common, conditions for women and children are unlikely to change much anytime soon, Shvetsova said.

“In the south, women experience pressure from relatives who, as a rule, do not want to wash their dirty laundry in public,” she said. “Many victims don’t even know their rights.”

Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.