Saltanat Nukenova: The politician, the astrologer and a murder which could change Kazakhstan

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The tenor of questioning does not surprise Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“The survivor may be blamed for behaving in some way which ‘provokes’ the offender; she may be blamed for destroying the family, for disrespecting her husband, or the parents and in-laws,” he told the BBC.

“It takes courage to report domestic violence, and there is every reason to believe that it is very much under-reported.”

The United Nations has estimated that around 400 Kazakh women are killed in domestic violence each year. In comparison, 70 women were killed in England and Wales – with a population three times larger – in the year to March 2023.

Calls to crisis centres for victims of domestic violence increased by 141.8% between 2018 and 2022, according to the Kazakh ministry of internal affairs.

Even so, Mr Krivosheev says there is “still a high level of tolerance to domestic violence, but it is coming down”.

But as details of Saltanat’s final hours were exposed to the nation via a live stream from the court room, pressure mounted on the government to act. Social media users took to platforms such as TikTok to talk about the case. And a petition, signed by more than 150,000 people, demanded reform in the law on domestic violence.

On 15 April, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed into law, external a bill that toughened the punishment for domestic violence – after it had been decriminalised in 2017. The new “Saltanat’s law” makes it a criminal offence; it was previously deemed a civil offence. Cases can now also be opened without a victim’s own report.

But the reality is, it still falls far short of what is needed, says Dinara Smailova – who founded the NeMolchiKZ Foundation, which helps victims of domestic violence and rape.

For a start, “harm is considered as slight” if a woman does not stay in hospital for at least 21 days; “Fractures, a broken nose and jaw are assessed as minor harm to health”.

Ms Smailova established her foundation after posting on social media in 2016 about surviving gang rape and sexual violence in her youth, and seeing the response. She said in the space of a few days, she received “about a hundred messages from women who talked about the violence they experienced, how they were forbidden to speak and how men went unpunished”.

Her foundation has been publishing “shocking cases of violence for eight years”, without a response from the government, she added. She herself no longer lives in Kazakhstan, where she has been put on a wanted list by the authorities for spreading false information, violating privacy and fraud, external.

Ironically, it is stories like these which would have inspired Saltanat’s compassion.

“She was always fighting for the justice,” says Aitbek. “It doesn’t matter in terms of what… so she had a strong feeling for justice. Whenever she saw that someone is hurt and that he needs protection, she was always there” for people.

And yes, he says, the law does not go far enough – yet. But it is a start, showing people that even the most powerful can be held to account.

This trial will show people that “in Kazakhstan, a law is the same for everyone and everyone is equal from the law in front of the trial,” he said.

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