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Kazakhstan Can’t Torture Its Way to Stability

Until the Tokayev regime shows remorse for its brutal crackdown, the country’s reforms won’t bring progress.

By , a lecturer at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and , an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Affairs.
People protest for political reform and the release of political prisoners in Kazakhstan.
People protest for political reform and the release of political prisoners in Kazakhstan.
People protest for political reform and the release of political prisoners in Kazakhstan outside the Kazakh Embassy in London on Jan. 30. Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Months after historic the anti-government uprising in Kazakhstan, the public is learning the real scope of police violence against the ruling regime’s opponents. When protests erupted in early January, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev deployed lethal force, killing 227 people. Hundreds more were hospitalized in critical condition.

After street protests were brutally suppressed, the violence continued in detention facilities. Authorities tortured scores of people arrested during the protests, including minors. Victims are now sharing shocking stories of broken limbs, needles inserted under nails, beatings, bags over their heads, suffocation, electric shock, and starvation.

In the southeastern city of Taldykorgan, police officers filmed their colleagues raping male detainees with truncheons and threatened to leak videos if victims spoke out about the torture. Many detainees were forced to sign guilty pleas and now face years in prison. Those who had been released and were caught leaking reports of torture were detained again.

Months after historic the anti-government uprising in Kazakhstan, the public is learning the real scope of police violence against the ruling regime’s opponents. When protests erupted in early January, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev deployed lethal force, killing 227 people. Hundreds more were hospitalized in critical condition.

After street protests were brutally suppressed, the violence continued in detention facilities. Authorities tortured scores of people arrested during the protests, including minors. Victims are now sharing shocking stories of broken limbs, needles inserted under nails, beatings, bags over their heads, suffocation, electric shock, and starvation.

In the southeastern city of Taldykorgan, police officers filmed their colleagues raping male detainees with truncheons and threatened to leak videos if victims spoke out about the torture. Many detainees were forced to sign guilty pleas and now face years in prison. Those who had been released and were caught leaking reports of torture were detained again.

Police officers filmed their colleagues raping male detainees with truncheons and threatened to leak videos if victims spoke out.

One detainee from the Almaty region was severely beaten and burned with a hot iron. Images of his back, covered in oozing burns and bruises, spread across social media sites. To demonstrate his disdain with the method of torture, Vladimir Prokopyev, a resident of Shchuchinsk in northern Kazakhstan, brought an iron with a handwritten inscription, “To Tokayev and Co,” to local government headquarters. He was quickly detained and accused of causing social strife.

His brave act inspired others to post pictures on social media wearing shirts with an iron-shaped imprint on their backs. As the government continues to deny cases of torture, Instagram, Facebook, and Telegram have become major sources for spreading news and facts about government torture of detainees.


Tokayev’s government has struggled to present a convincing justification for using lethal force and torture against protesters. Claims that Almaty was engulfed with 20,000 well-trained terrorists failed to convince domestic or foreign audiences. Although the city was indeed tarnished by violent provocateurs who burned government buildings and looted businesses, Tokayev’s response to shoot without warning at both looters and innocent bystanders was unprecedented for Kazakhstan in the post-Soviet era.

Most of the dead and wounded do not fit the profile of terrorist. Among those killed was Yerlan Zhagiparov, a historian of Turkic people, who was tortured and shot to death in Almaty. Gulzifa Kulsultanova, a 64-year-old retired teacher who had participated in the Almaty 1986 uprising against the Soviet regime, and her husband, Kuat Bitkenbaev, were shot to death while driving home, their car pelted with 15 bullets, killing them instantly. A 4-year-old girl was shot to death, and her 15-year-old sister received life-threatening wounds. And a mother of four was killed in front of her children.

Abduhapar Orazgaly, a Kazakh born and raised in China, had moved to his “historic homeland” a year ago and received Kazakh citizenship just three months ago. A decorated 19-year-old runner, he dreamed about competing for Kazakhstan in international championships. His family last spoke to him on Jan. 5 on his way home from training. They later found his body in an Almaty morgue with a gunshot wound.

Sayat Adilbekulu, a photographer from Almaty, was brought to the hospital in critical condition after police wounded him with a gunshot in the lower back. While still in the hospital recovering from emergency surgery, he was detained by agents in masks. He was then severely beaten and threatened: “One step to the right, one step to the left—and we’ll kill you right now.”

Even foreign nationals have been targeted. Famous Kyrgyz jazz pianist Vikram Ruzakhunov, who happened to be in Kazakhstan to perform, was tortured and forced to identify himself as a paid provocateur on national television. Another migrant from Kyrgyzstan sustained multiple injuries and had both of his legs broken by the police.

Coalition Against Torture, a union of numerous nongovernmental organizations, reported at least 200 cases of documented torture in the aftermath of the January protests. The real number is likely higher because many survivors are afraid to speak out. Not everyone survives torture. Yeldos Kaliev, a 26-year-old geologist, was detained during the police’s raid on terrorists. He died from torture in prison.


The January protests were a watershed moment for many in Kazakhstan. Seeing the scope of the protests, many became fearless of the current regime. “We will stay till the end,” said an elderly woman at the protest. Like many, she was undeterred when the police deployed tear gas. The crowds shouted: “Do not be afraid” and “don’t give up.” For the first time in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet history, people from across the country came together to demand a fairer economic policy and a more representative political system.

But as the public has learned about stories of police torture, fear of the violent regime has been replaced by horror for its cruelty. Today’s stories of state violence invoke memories of Soviet repression, including the brutal suppression of a popular uprising in 1986 known as Jeltoqsan, when roughly 200 civilians were killed by Soviet special forces. The day is commemorated as a national tragedy.

Recent killings and torture also spur memories of brutality during former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s reign. The January violence coincided with already heightened public interest in reexamining Stalin’s atrocities. Around 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s population perished from starvation and repression in the 1920s and 1930s. Regime critics compare the killings and torture under Tokayev to the actions of the Gestapo and People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). From numerous records of torture methods under Stalin, the historic parallels are uncanny: Gun shots with empty rounds to the heads of detainees was a method then—and are again being reported in today’s Kazakhstan.

Journalists, human rights activists, and survivors of torture continue to speak out against the current regime’s brutalities. Citizens record video messages addressed to Tokayev demanding an end to torture. Despite the government’s ban on protests, activists continue to gather. In early February, a group of activists organized a memorial rally in central Almaty to commemorate victims of the recent state violence. In the western city of Zhanaozen where January protests first began, the public rallies hardly stopped.

Despite public trauma, the state is responding with technocratic measures that lack compassion and remorse.

Despite public trauma, the state is responding with technocratic measures that lack compassion and remorse. Except for rare moments when Tokayev has offered fleeting condolences to the families who’ve lost their loved ones or a quick prayer at the mosque, his government continues to blame so-called bandits. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped distract public attention from the January trauma.

Perhaps in an attempt to justify deadly police violence and torture, the government reported that two police officers were found decapitated during the Almaty protests. The report turned out to be false, further undermining the government’s credibility. Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry also promised to investigate reports of torture but so far have offered little transparency, instead reiterating that “citizens will soon definitely receive answers.” Human Rights Watch called these measures insufficient.

For decades, Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, prided himself on creating economic prosperity and social stability, all while corruption became endemic among the ruling elite. In reaction to earlier protests, Nazarbayev reshuffled key posts in the government and expanded policing across the country. However, he did not open the political system up to opposing voices.

Like Nazarbayev in 2011, Tokayev has also reshuffled his cabinet and increased pensions and salaries. He promised to decrease the role of the president and strengthen the parliament. Such measures show a regime trying to pacify the grieving public, but its ability to deliver deep political reform is yet to be seen.

Kazakhstan won’t heal until it allows an independent investigation that exposes the scope of the government’s atrocities and human loss. Police officers participating in torture must be held accountable. The government should drop charges against survivors of torture and offer economic compensation. Finally, Tokayev must admit that Kazakhstan’s political stability can’t be achieved through deadly force and torture against the public.

Botakoz Kassymbekova is a lecturer at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Twitter: @BotakozKassymb1

Erica Marat is an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. The views expressed here are her own. Twitter: @EricaMarat

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