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‘We’re ordinary people, not terrorists’ A year after Kazakhstan’s ‘Bloody January,’ photographers release portraits of the people affected by the authorities’ deadly crackdown

Source: Bauyrzhan Sabit and Beibarys Tolymbekov

On January 7, 2022, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made a shocking statement on Twitter: he said that in the preceding days, 20,000 foreign-trained terrorists had attacked the country. As a result, he claimed, it was necessary for him to order a “counter-terrorist operation to eliminate the national security threat and protect the lives and property of the citizens of Kazakhstan.” That same day, he announced in a televised address that he had ordered police and the army to “shoot to kill without warning.”

In reality, the president’s “counter-terrorist operation” consisted of police violence against hundreds of Kazakh citizens who dared to attend protests, as well as the arrests and torture of numerous people in the days that followed. While Tokayev’s tweet has since been deleted and removed from news archives, the authorities’ brutality remains in the memories of survivors and victims’ relatives. To mark the one-year anniversary of Kazakhstan’s January 2022 uprising and the crackdown that followed, photographer Bauyrzhan Sabit and activist Beibarys Tolymbekov created a photo series called “20,000.” In the authors’ own words, “the authorities continue to call them terrorists, looters, and foreign mercenaries, but by gathering people’s stories and experiences, bit by bit, we want to show the human tragedy that the state is trying to erase.”

Content warning: The following story contains graphic descriptions of police violence against peaceful demonstrators.

Ermek Abdreshev

Ermek at the intersection of Almaty’s Nazarbayev and Kurmangazy streets, where he was hit in the head with a rubber bullet. Almaty, 2022.

Ermek Abdreshev is a 37-year-old mechanic from Almaty. On January 5, at a peaceful protest that Ermek attended, police detonated stun grenades in front of the crowd and fired rubber bullets at demonstrators. One of the bullets hit Ermek in the face, sending him into a coma. He woke up in a hospital three days later.

On January 8, armed security officers wearing masks came into the hospital and arrested Ermek along with all of the other patients who had been injured at the protests. By then, Ermek had become completely blind. After torturing him for 11 days, the officers allowed him to return home.

Seven months later, the rioting case that had been opened against Ermek was closed. He filed a complaint with the country’s anti-corruption agency about the torture he experienced, but the authorities have not pursued the case.

Daniyar Irgaliyev

Daniyar in front of the Medeu District Internal Affairs Department building. Almaty, 2022.

Daniyar Irgaliyev lives in Almaty, where he works as a business consultant. On the evening of January 12, he was stopped by a military convoy on his way home from work. They beat him before taking him to a police precinct.

There, security officers searched Daniyar’s person, examined the contents of his phone, and tortured him. He was released after several hours.

Daniyar filed an official complaint against the officers and identified them to the authorities, but not one of the people who tortured him has been prosecuted. 

Rashid Igisinov

Rashid Igisinov lives in Almaty, where he manages a shop with his wife. On January 5, at a protest in the city’s Republic Square, he was hit in the arm by a rubber bullet. After going to the hospital and receiving painkillers, Rashid returned home. On January 6, still experiencing pain in his arm, he returned to the hospital, where he was checked into an inpatient unit and underwent surgery.

Scars on Rashid Igisinov’s arm after his injury on January 5, 2022

On January 8, armed men wearing military uniforms entered the hospital and took all of the injured patients to a pre-trial detention facility. There, Rashid’s captors tortured and beat him, damaging his internal organs. He wasn’t allowed to return home until early February.

After his release, Rashid filed an official complaint about the torture he had experienced. To this day, however, none of the officers who shot or tortured Rashid Igisinov has been prosecuted.

Ainur Baitkhanova

Ainur in front of a marble wall where shots from a heavy machine gun are still visible. Almaty, 2022.

Ainur Baitkhanova is the sister of Jomart Baitkhan, a 35-year-old Almaty resident who was killed during the January unrest. Baitkhan went out into the city on January 5 and January 6, filming looters and joining a group of vigilantes trying to maintain order.

On the evening of January 6, police began firing at protesters, and Jomart was hit multiple times. Telephone geolocation data indicates that he lay in the street until the following morning, when his body was taken to a morgue.

On September 30, 2022, a pre-trial investigation into Jomart Baitkhan’s death was closed due to a “lack of evidence.” The case materials are classified.

No one has been held responsible for his death.

Aidar Orazbekov

Aidar in front of an independence monument near the spot where he was injured. Almaty, 2022.

On January 6, Almaty resident Aidar Orazbekov went to a peaceful protest in Almaty’s Republic Square and took photos of people carrying signs that read, “We’re ordinary people, not terrorists.” That night, when the Kazakh authorities began firing at protesters, Aidar was injured and ended up in the hospital.

On January 8, armed security officers wearing masks came to the hospital where Aidar was being treated and arrested him. They took him to a pre-trial detention facility, where he was tortured. He was released one month later, in early February.

In September, the authorities closed the rioting case that had been opened against Aidar. None of the officers who shot him or tortured him have been held responsible.

Galymbek Bisayev

45-year-old Galymbek Bisayev is the father of six children. He lives in the village of Karakystak in Kazakhstan’s Almaty region. On January 5, Bisayev and several of his fellow villagers traveled to Almaty to register their complaints to the country’s authorities about low living standards; after realizing that there would be no dialogue, however, they returned home.

On January 10, police officers wearing masks broke into Galymbek’s home and took him away. After that, according to Galymbek, he was held in a police station in the village of Uzynagash and tortured for four days. Then, for another four days, he was tortured in an Almaty police station, where his captors broke his fingers, his arms, and several of his ribs. On January 18, Galymbek was transferred to a detention center.

Galymbeks’ wife, Asem Sydykova, began searching for him as soon as police abducted him. She told their six children that their father was simply stuck at work.

Asem didn’t see Galymbek again until February; his state-provided lawyer gave her numerous excuses for why it was impossible for them to meet. It was only after she hired a private lawyer that she made progress in Galymbek’s case, and he was finally released on March 10.

More than nine months later, on December 23, 2022, preliminary hearings in a rioting case against Galymbek Bisayev and 24 other defendants, one of whom was dead, began in Almaty. Galymbek was able to identify multiple officers who were involved in torturing him, but all of the cases against them have been closed.

None of the policemen who tortured Galymbek have been prosecuted. One of these officers now serves as a security officer at the school attended by Galymbek and Asem’s children.

Nurtas Karaneyev

Nurtas at the place where he was injured. Almaty, 2022.

Nurtas Karaneyev is a 41-year-old barber from Almaty. On January 5, he went to Almaty’s Republic Square, where he was injured near the press area. He was then taken to the hospital, where he underwent surgery.

On January 8, security officials wearing masks entered the hospital and took Nurtas and the other wounded patients to a pre-trial detention center. According to Nurtas, the officers beat him, but not as badly as they beat the other detainees — possibly because he’s a veteran.

On February 3, Nurtas was released. Neither the person who shot him nor the officers who tortured him have been held legally accountable.

Ruslan Kemelbayev

Ruslan at the spot where he was injured by grenade shrapnel. Almaty, 2022.

Ruslan Kemelbayev lives in the Almaty region. On January 5, he went to a nearby square in order to help take wounded people to safety. At one point, a grenade exploded near him. Though he managed to hide behind a police shield, he still suffered a wound on his left shoulder.

Ruslan went to the hospital, where his shoulder was bandaged, and then went home. After that, fearing repressions from the authorities, he made sure not to seek medical attention or speak publicly about his injury. It wasn’t until three months later that he returned to the hospital, where he underwent surgery on his shoulder.

No officers have been charged with throwing the grenade that injured Ruslan Kemelbayev.

Elmira Usabayeva

Elmira Usabayeva is the sister of Ruslan Usabayev, who was killed during the January unrest. On January 5, Elmira spoke to Ruslan on the phone for the last time; he told her he was returning home with his childhood friend Vadim Korober. Neither of the two men ever arrived.

The following day, Elmira found Ruslan’s and Vadim’s bodies at the morgue. Both had died from bullet wounds.

No one has been prosecuted for shooting Ruslan Usabayev or Vadim Korober.

Bullet holes in a mural near Almaty’s Republic Square

Photos by Bauyrzhan Sabit, text by Beibarys Tolymbekov

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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