May 23, 2024

Warning: This article contains details of violent domestic abuse that some may find upsetting.

On November 9 last year, in the VIP room of a restaurant in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, Saltanat Nukenova was beaten to death by former minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev, her husband.

Surveillance footage shows him viciously punching and kicking Nukenova in the restaurant, which is owned by his family, before dragging her by the hair to a separate room, where there were no cameras.

As she lay dying in the suite, covered in her blood, Bishimbayev phoned a fortune-teller, who assured him his wife would be fine. When an ambulance finally arrived 12 hours later, Nukenova was pronounced dead at the scene. She was 31 years old.

Bishimbayev, 44, has admitted guilt. He has acknowledged causing her death, but said he had not acted “with exceptional cruelty”, which is what he has been charged with.

The ongoing murder trial, which is being livestreamed over social media like a dark reality show, has gripped not only Kazakhstan but also Russia and beyond and led to debate about traditional gender roles.

According to the United Nations, about 400 women die from domestic abuse in the country each year. This figure could be higher, however, as some cases go unreported.

“In Kazakhstan, there has been a storm, and now the whole country and even the whole world is involved,” Dinara Smailova, founder of the women’s rights NGO NeMolchi, which means Don’t Be Silent, told Al Jazeera.

“We’ve been working with high-profile cases for many years, and we see how people are afraid and ashamed to talk about domestic violence. [But] from the very beginning, the relatives of the victim told what happened with an open face.”

Kazakhstan's former Economy Minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev, charged with beating his wife to death, attends a court hearing in Astana, Kazakhstan April 3, 2024. REUTERS/Turar Kazangapov
Kazakhstan’s former Economy Minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev, charged with beating his wife to death, attends a court hearing in Astana, Kazakhstan, April 3, 2024 [Turar Kazangapov/Reuters]

Smailova said Bishimbayev, previously convicted of corruption, is a “favourite” of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“He is of the old system,” said Smailova. “He was pardoned by Nazarbayev himself, and now he’s being publicly tried by the new president. And this had such an effect on Kazakhs, that now we can release all our fury and indignation [at the old system] that’s bottled up all these years. The system gave us a whipping boy, and the boy certainly deserves it.”

Bishimbayev, economy minister in 2016, had been sentenced in 2018 to 10 years in prison for pocketing state funds. However, he was granted an early release the following year by then-President Nazarbayev.

Nukenova’s friends and family say over the year they were together, she suffered prolonged physical and mental abuse at the hands of Bishimbayev, whom she tried leaving several times.

They often saw her with bruises and rope marks around her neck, and say the disgraced minister forbade her from speaking with them. He was jealous, they have said, and monitored the contents of her phone.

Her brother Aitbek Amangeldy has been in court every day to defend her memory from Bishimbayev’s defence team, which has portrayed her as a hysterical, promiscuous woman who drank heavily and provoked her husband.

“I listened to how they shamed her in court, how it was her fault she drank, and this hit me very hard,” Smailova said. “I immediately found a photograph of myself holding a glass of wine and uploaded it, and said just because you can see me with a glass of wine doesn’t mean you can kill me. I didn’t expect it, but a lot of Kazakh women picked it up and it started to explode.”

Celebrities and everyday Kazakh women responded by posting photos of themselves holding glasses of wine, with the hashtag #ZaSaltanat, meaning For Saltanat.

The high-profile case has seen longstanding social norms questioned.

Popular rapper Jah Khalib came under fire on social media after a 2022 podcast resurfaced, in which he agreed with the statement of another guest that “85 percent of rapes of women” are because the victim “happened to be at the wrong place, in the wrong clothes, at the wrong time”.

“It’s a historical event that will completely change the mentality and consciousness of the people,” said Smailova.

“We see the old generation that is still clinging to the patriarchy, and the younger generation that is completely intolerant and impatient to any violence. And I think this is great that we have finally come to this understanding and we managed to do it so quickly, but it came at the expense of a beautiful young girl. And it’s very sad that it came at such a price.”

Amid the public outcry, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on April 15 signed new legislation making striking women and children a criminal offence punishable by jail time. Previously, most instances of domestic violence were treated as lesser, civil infractions.

Police are now obliged to investigate all cases concerning domestic violence, even those the victim did not report.

But the new law has met pushback from male lawmakers.

One deputy from the governing Amanat party suggested that if abusive husbands were to be placed in solitary confinement, so should their wives, for provoking them. Another proposed a special law just for men, who he argued do not have enough rights in Kazakhstan.

Smailova believes the law is an important first step, even if it falls short of all the measures to protect women and children from domestic abuse. But others are disappointed it does not go far enough.

“I think the law of April 15 is just a small concession to society to make people shut up,” said Dinara’s colleague, Almat Mukhamedzhanov.

“I can separately clarify what we expected from the new law and what we received. Most importantly, we did not receive protection for the constitutional rights of women and children. That’s why I thought for a long time about what to say about the new law, because I think that this is a mockery of the memory of dead women and injured children.”

Russian reaction

Interest in the livestreamed murder trial reaches beyond Kazakhstan’s borders.

“We women of Russia are with you, women of Kazakhstan,” reads one top-rated YouTube comment under a video with more than seven million views.

“Women of Kazakhstan, women of Armenia are with you!!” and “Belarus is also with you”, read others.

The case is particularly resonating in Russia, where certain forms of domestic violence were controversially decriminalised in 2017, wherein hitting a spouse or child is merely punishable by two weeks imprisonment or a fine if it causes only mild injury and happens once a year.

In 2021, the Russian Consortium of Women’s NGOs reported that almost 10,000 women were killed by their partners between 2011 and 2019; the authors of the study warned that the “most dangerous place for a woman is in Russia”.

“Abuse and violence are often hidden behind a beautiful facade,” model Anastasia Reshetova posted on Instagram, saying she knows “firsthand” the dangers of domestic violence.

“Psychopaths are always distinguished by their ability to win over people and create the impression of a very pleasant person … After each outburst of aggression in your direction, you will be showered with gifts or simply reassured with the right words, usually convincing you that it’s your fault.”

Well-known psychiatrist Vasily Shurov released a video warning how to recognise a psychopath and an abusive or controlling relationship. In the early “honeymoon” phase, the abuser tests boundaries while the victim is emotionally trapped, he said.

“The very first act of violence is reason [enough] to end the relationship,” Shurov told his viewers.

Famous Russian TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak attended the Almaty court and sat next to the victim’s family.

A “quiet revolution” was taking place in Kazakhstan, she said.

“The conservative part of the population literally dictated to women: don’t talk, don’t wash dirty linen in public, keep quiet, put up with it and fall in love,” she wrote on Telegram. “And now the girls have not only united in a campaign against domestic tyrants, but have also achieved the adoption of a special law.”

Sardana Guryeva, the human rights ombudsman for Yakutia in Russia’s far east, called for domestic violence to be recriminalised.

“It is necessary to join forces so that everyone can feel safe in their home. [It is necessary to] create a society where domestic violence will be absolutely unacceptable,” she wrote on VK, a Russian online social media platform.

But blogger Katya Konasova added that this was not enough.

“Unfortunately, in Russia still there is no law against domestic violence yet,” she told her 1.7 million YouTube subscribers. “Even though in this regard I will always support such legislative initiatives, unfortunately, as the cases with [Bishimbayev] show, for boys, laws alone are certainly not enough. Laws are important, but we also need to change how the culture itself treats women differently.”

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