Widow of victim of Kazakh unrest tells of police pressure
ALMATY, Kazakhstan — The widow of a man killed during anti-government unrest in Kazakhstan in January says authorities pressured her with the apparent aim of obtaining testimony that matches the government’s account of the deadly uprising.
Yermek Kebekbaev, a 42-year-old businessman, was shot and killed by security forces on January 6 near Almaty’s central square where security forces suppressed protesters.
His widow, Aqtoty Kebekbaeva, says he was driving home from a gas station when the incident happened. According to the passenger in Kebekbaev’s car, the men were hit by bullets fired from armored personnel carriers.
Kebekbaev was killed instantly and the passenger injured.
Kebekbaev’s body was found by his family in an Almaty morgue the next day. His car, with several bullet holes, was found near the square.
Kazakh authorities maintain that government forces did not fire on unarmed protesters or bystanders. They say security forces have targeted “armed criminals” and “foreign-trained terrorists”, although no evidence has been provided to support claims that these people were present at the protests.
Kebekbaeva says she was subjected to “threats” and “pressure” from law enforcement investigating her husband’s murder.
The mother-of-three told RFE/RL that investigators repeatedly summoned her for questioning and made several unannounced visits to her home to question her.
Kebekbaeva claims that the authorities are trying to present her deceased husband as a “terrorist”. She insists he was just an innocent bystander.
“They treat me like I’m the wife of a terrorist. They ask, ‘Why did he go there, why did you bury his body so quickly?’ said the 29-year-old widow. According to an Islamic tradition that dictates the body should be buried as soon as possible, Kebekbaev’s burial took place the same day he was discovered at the morgue.
“They threaten to send me to prison if I give false testimony. They put pressure on me,” she added.
Many witnesses to the January unrest repeatedly accused the military and police of shooting unarmed people, whether protesters or people caught in the crossfire. There were many elderly people and children among the more than 238 victims who Kazakh authorities say died in the nationwide unrest that began with a protest against an increase in fuel prices in the western Kazakhstan.
Many people think the death toll could be considerably higher than the official count.
But authorities have rejected calls for an independent investigation into the killings.
Suffer in silence
“There were so many corpses in the morgue. There were also bodies outside the morgue in the streets because there was no more space inside,” Kebekbaeva said.
She wants to know who killed her husband and why he and “so many other people” had to die during days of mostly peaceful protests.
The young family is still trying to come to terms with the tragedy that struck them. The mother fears that her older children – a nine-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son – will be deeply traumatized by the loss of their father.
“My son is crying while hiding under a blanket, so I can’t see his tears… My eldest daughter is also trying hard not to show she is upset,” she said. Her youngest child, who is five years old, still does not know that her father is dead.
Kebekbaeva says visits from investigators left her children “fearful of any loud noise and knocking on the door”.
“The officers come without telling us in advance, sometimes they come when I’ve walked into the grocery store and the kids are home alone,” she said, adding that she had asked officials to do not come unannounced. But these visits have not ceased.
The death of the sole breadwinner has also left the family facing financial hardship and an uncertain future. Kebekbaeva relies on the monthly aid of $140 she receives from the state. But this money is not enough for food and other basic necessities, such as the rent for their modest apartment in Almaty.
And there is no one to turn to for help since Kebekbaeva’s parents are deceased and her in-laws are elderly and frail.
Kebekbaeva is looking for work, but she doesn’t know who would take care of her children while she is at work.
“We had a normal life — my husband drove the kids to school, he worked to earn money for the family, he brought home food and clothes,” she said. “We miss him terribly.”