"Authorities Attempting to Evade Liability for Their Crimes"

State Security Colonel Iskakov accused of organizing mass riots in Kazakhstan talks about what really happened in January 2022

"Authorities Attempting to Evade Liability for Their Crimes"

Residence of the President of Kazakhstan in Almaty Following Assault 2022 Photo: AURA.RU / TASS

Two years ago, in the first decade of January 2022, a terrorist attack thrust Kazakhstan into the global spotlight nearly causing its government to fall and the country to lose its unity. Up to now, the events of those days, known as the Almaty Tragedy or Kan tar (January in Kazakh), remain largely an enigma, with a local civilian protest quickly spreading across the country and dissolving into hostilities. The authorities claimed that at least 20,000 terrorists, who were trained, among other places, in Afghan camps, had attacked the former capital.

In a lengthy interview published in early 2024, Tokayev reiterated the following points:

Kazakhstan’s President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev Photo: Wikipedia

Kazakhstan’s President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev Photo: Wikipedia

“Criminal gangs, whose leaders were controlled by the conspirators and had connections with terrorists, including those who had arrived from abroad, became involved. By making use of special techniques, provokers, and gangsters, they were able to transform peaceful protests into widespread riots that involved significant violence, looting, arson, and property destruction. Amid the chaos, armed gangsters and terrorists joined the action and simultaneously, on a common command, attacked the buildings of the authorities, law-enforcement agencies, gun stores, and arsenals of the law-enforcement forces and military units.”

Moreover, the way that the terrorists acted was highly selective: they burned the archives of Kazakhfilm but left the office of the British oil company Shell untouched. They also surrounded the presidential residence but retreated after the arrival of Russian peacekeepers as part of the CSTO collective mission. Importantly,

the Russian servicemen were able to take control of the situation without firing a single shot. That operation was undoubtedly historical as a month and a half later, the Russian president would launch a special military operation in Ukraine, where it would be no longer possible to avoid shooting.

The events of Kantar turned out to be historic also for Kazakhstan, where they resulted in the personality cult of the first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, getting completely debunked. His numerous relatives still occupying positions of power were purportedly the masterminds behind those bloody events. An objective investigation and an open court trial of the participants would be necessary to establish the truth.

Karim Masimov, Chairman of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee Photo: Dmitriy Dukhanin / the Kommersant

Karim Masimov, Chairman of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee Photo: Dmitriy Dukhanin / the Kommersant

Initially, it appeared that was exactly what would happen. Even before the end of the anti-terrorist operation, Karim Masimov, Chairman of the National Security Committee (NSC), was arrested on suspicion of high treason. It was publicly stated that militants were trained in the mountains of Kazakhstan with his knowledge. Also brought to justice were Dualet Yergozhin and Anuar Sadykulov, the Deputy Heads of the NSC, as well as Ruslan Iskakov, the head of the 5th department of the 4th service of the Committee. As clarified by the investigators at that time, all of them were parties to a conspiracy with the purpose of seizing the power. Notwithstanding international demands for a transparent investigation, the materials were classified as secret and the proceedings were closed.

In the span of two years, Tokayev’s rhetoric has shifted. He is no longer talking of an open investigation or the triumph of law, but is rather expecting a unity of the authorities and the society in the condemnation of those involved in the January events:

“Discussions about an alleged civilian uprising facilitate the justification and whitewashing of criminal acts. Such irresponsible and, essentially, provocative discourse results in the glorification of hard-case criminals and in harmful criminal psychology sprouting roots in our society, and, therefore, encourages new disturbances to the detriment of the national security and the well-being of our people. It is a very serious threat. Therefore, I am sure that the state and the society must be united in their condemnation of lawlessness.”

So far, the investigation and court proceedings appear to be following the traditions of the post-Soviet authoritarianism. Generals Masimov, Yergozhin, and Sadykulov have already received their lengthy sentences ranging from 15 to 18 years. Colonel Iskakov who had a key role to play — as envisioned by the investigation, the supervisor of the republic’s police officers was supposed to sabotage their operations to repel the attack — has only recently appeared in court, but has already come into the spotlight. Iskakov has accused the investigation of falsifying evidence and insists that he tried to prevent the bloodshed and demands that Samat Abish, Nazarbayev’s nephew and former deputy head of the NSC, be prosecuted. Following the latter’s order, Iskakov brought in Arman Dzhumageldiyev who is commonly referred to by the pro-government media as “Wild Arman” and whose involvement in the Kantar events has become the cornerstone of the investigation.

Dzhumageldiyev has a very striking background. He has been portrayed by various media outlets as a criminal mastermind and NSC agent, while some journalists have referred to him as a personal trotter of the Nazarbayev family.

Arman Dzhumageldiyev Photo: social networks

Arman Dzhumageldiyev Photo: social networks

For the past few years, he has been known to live in Istanbul and support the ideas of pan-Turkism. Presently, he shares the defendants’ bench with previously high-ranking law-enforcement officers facing charges of creating a criminal organization, organizing mass riots, and kidnappings.

One of them, colonel Ruslan Iskakov whose NSC responsibilities included, in particular, supervising operations against organized crime groups, wrote an open letter from behind the bars, addressing it to the Prosecutor General and the Commissioner for Human Rights in Kazakhstan, the administration of President Tokayev, international human rights organizations, and leading mass media outlets, such as the Novaya. We believe that the information in Iskakov’s letter significantly expands our knowledge of what happened in January 2022 and of the criminal and political prosecutions that were inspired by those events. We have, therefore, decided to publish the text of the letter.

On the Real Causes of Mass Protests

As is commonly known, the first public rallies began on the morning of January 2 in Zhanaozen in response to the doubling of the automobile gas prices. Initially, they were local, with nothing indicating their eventual mass scale. Previously, similar labor disputes had occurred periodically in the oil-producing regions of western Kazakhstan, but they were anticipated and resolved quickly and usually without escalating into a prolonged confrontation. The NSC informed the president twice about the liquefied gas price increase as a precondition for the protests that would result in social unrest. However, both of those warnings were ignored.

The reason why the protest escalated to become a large-scale rally were the actions of the government and the ministry of oil and gas which, directed by the president, tried to “squeeze out” Timur Kulibayev, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, who controlled the oil and gas sector. Having played too long with the redistribution of the spheres of economic influence, they disturbed a socially painful and vulnerable area. Ultimately,

the rise in LPG prices, combined with the other unresolved social issues, proved to be the final tipping point.

Protest Rallies Against Rising LPG Prices in Almaty. Photo: AP / TASS

Protest Rallies Against Rising LPG Prices in Almaty. Photo: AP / TASS

Essentially, it was the government and the subject ministry which reported to and coordinated its actions with the president who had taken the lead in the country as early as in 2019, that provoked the protest.

During that period, I was constantly at work coordinating line operations and interacting with five regional divisions of the NSC, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the prosecutors, etc. The NSC leadership kept a low profile and were confident as they had previously informed the presidential administration and the president about potential protests. At a meeting of the state committee, D. Yegorzhin, former deputy chairman of the NSC, suggested reducing the price to its original level but found no support from the government officials who explained that the state would demonstrate its weakness if they did so.

As early as on January 4, the protests spread to the other parts of the country and took the shape of an aggressive revolt. Following the spread of the conflict to the western region of the country, a team led by N. Bilisbekov, deputy chairman of the NSC, was dispatched to the epicenter of the unrest. Two people from my department — my deputy and a mid-tier head officer, were assigned to that team. However, those efforts only sought to address the aftermath of the protests rather than the root cause. While the real reasons were an inadequate reaction of the president and the government, no timely decisions made to stabilize the situation, and unwillingness to engage and negotiate with the protesters, i.e. their own people.

On Law Enforcers’ Actions During a Critical Moment

By January 5, the unrest had spread across half of the country, with a state of emergency introduced in some regions. The police and military personnel were attacked in large numbers, the airport was seized, and the Almaty Akimat was under assault.

Chaos and panic pervaded the NSC and the other law-enforcement agencies. By way of example, the Department of the National Security Committee of Almaty was evacuated on that day although their building was never seized. Nurlan Mazhilov, the head of the Almaty NSC Department, fled to Astana. At that time, Samat Abish, the first deputy chairman of the NSC, was in charge of the headquarters’ operational leadership. As Nazarbayev’s nephew, he had control over all the information flow within the NSC. For five years, I carried out his orders while he supervised the work of the 5th Department of the NSC and, later, the so-called special projects. On that day, January 5, 2022, Abish, in the presence of Dualet Yergozhin, gave me an order via a special communication channel to seek assistance from Arman Dzhumageldiyev.

Samat Abish. Photo:

Samat Abish. Photo:

Arman is a well-known figure in the republic, possessing charisma and commanding respect. He was asked to save the police officers who were blocked in the Almaty Akimat and try to stabilize the situation in Republic Square in front of the Almaty Akimat.

By that time, about 20,000 protesters had gathered in the square who were falsely branded by Turgumbayev, Minister of Internal Affairs, as “militants” who had assaulted Almaty from the outside.

While, in effect, they were residents of the city and surrounding communities, but in no way “terrorists from Afghanistan and Syria”.

Up to the present moment, I have no idea why the head of the state issued an order to shoot without warning. That was a huge mistake that claimed victims.

It was at my request and in pursuance of Abish’s order that Arman Dzhumageldiyev walked into the square and led away a significant group of protesters to the Independence Monument. He did all he could and suffered while doing so: he was attacked by those who wanted the conflict, blood, and chaos to spread.

Even now, I do not believe that Abish’s order was unreasonable or illegal, judging by the situation. The goal and objectives were informed by the situation at hand. I had no doubts whatsoever about the need to fulfill the order.

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Furthermore, I was convinced that Abish had had his order approved at the highest level, that is, by the head of state. Later, during the investigation, while in reality it was a witch hunt, Abish chickened out, relinquishing his own order. But the fact remains, he framed all of us: me, Dzhumageldiyev, and the other guys.

Those guys fervently and whole-heartedly responded to the call to save the country during its most difficult hour.

Panic and chaos were widespread, with the law-enforcement agencies and armed forces paralyzed by fear and indecision. In his televised address to the people, the president announced that the country was under a terrorist attack.

Ablyazov, a prominent opposition leader, was pushing from abroad for protests and coordination of actions through the headquarters of his extremist party, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK). Almaty was engulfed by looting, pillaging, and arsons. The information space was but a compilation of fakes, rumors, etc.

Berik Zhuiriktayev, the prosecutor in Almaty who was actively involved in the operations of the Almaty City Operational Headquarters for Combating Terrorism (ACOH) and provided for the legality of the decisions made, requested that I send Dzhumageldiyev’s men to his parents’ house for protection. I asked for Arman's permission and fulfilled his request. Subsequently, Zhuiriktayev authorized my arrest, incriminating illegal involvement of Arman Dzhumageldiyev for protection of hospitals.

Contrary to the law, Zhuiriktayev and his deputy Rakishev were never questioned on those circumstances.

Berik Zhuiriktayev, Almaty Prosecutor Photo:

Berik Zhuiriktayev, Almaty Prosecutor Photo:

Also staying in the ACOH and participating in its operations were B. Sagintayev, the mayor of Almaty, and his deputies and junior staff. But the investigating prosecutors refused to question them, likewise.

The absurdity of the investigation does not end with that. At first, K. Taimerdenov, Almaty Commandant and Head of the Police Department, detained the active unrest participants but then released them as demanded by the protesters’ leaders. The released detainees took part in the seizure of the Almaty airport, but there were no procedural consequences that followed.

The above-mentioned former Minister of Internal Affairs, Yerlan Turgumbayev, trying to escape liability and misrepresenting the facts, named Arman Dzhumageldiyev as the organizer of civil disturbances. That is inconceivable and impossible. How and what could he possibly organize having arrived in Kazakhstan only on December 17, 2021, in connection with his first-born daughter’s illness? Moreover, all his visits to Kazakhstan from Turkey in 2017 to 2022 were approved by the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to avoid the planting of weapons and drugs. Dzhumageldiyev personally arranged his last visit with Turgumbayev. This is evidenced by the correspondence between them on Dzhumageldiev’s cellular telephone before December 17, 2021, which was blocked during investigation by the police officers from the investigation team following Turgumbayev’s direct order so as to conceal the SMS messages).

Yerlan Turgumbayev, Kazakhstan’s Former Minster of Internal Affairs. Photo:

Yerlan Turgumbayev, Kazakhstan’s Former Minster of Internal Affairs. Photo:

Arman had been in Turkey since 2017 against his will, fearing that the police might set him up by planting weapons or drugs. And that fear was well-grounded. It suffices to watch the video recording of Arman’s arrest at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on January 7, 2022. Essentially, the footage shows evidence tampering by Berik Abilbekov, Deputy Head of the Almaty Police Department, who attempted to place a gun in the hand of a badly beaten and unconscious Arman. It was that gun that was later used by the investigating prosecutors as evidence against the defendants, including against Dzhumageldiyev. To the shame of Abilbekov and the police officers who were there, I have to point out that Arman’s personal belongings and cash totaling several thousand dollars and euros were stolen.

Dzhumageldiyev was detained on orders from abroad. On the evening of January 5, the NSC Chairman Karim Masimov received a telephone call from Russia. The caller said that a decision had been made to deploy CSTO troops in Kazakhstan. The political leadership of Russia adopted that decision before a meeting of the Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

On the Events Following the Arrival of the CSTO Mission

At the meeting of the Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan, President Tokayev explained his request for assistance from the CSTO by the terrorists’ threat to the state’s integrity. He later stated that the militants involved in the terrorist attack had been transported from Afghanistan and Syria. However,

no foreign militants entered Almaty or attacked Independence Square, the Akimat of Almaty, the president’s residence, etc. To this date, not a single militant has been detained or convicted. There are only our citizens on the defendants’ bench.

Residence of the President of Kazakhstan in Almaty Following Assault. Photo: URA.RU / TASS

Residence of the President of Kazakhstan in Almaty Following Assault. Photo: URA.RU / TASS

In point of fact, about 20,000 people gathered in Almaty’s Republic Square on January 5, 2022. They were residents of the city and surrounding communities who were hysterically tagged as militants and terrorists.

I am confident that it was the former Minister of Internal Affairs Turgumbayev who informed the president about the non-existing “Afghan” and “Syrian” militants. Turgumbayev should have been one of the first to incur punishment for systemic failures in law enforcement and public safety. In 2021, Turgumbayev visited Belarus on more than one occasion, both individually and as part of a delegation, to gain insights on how to handle mass protests in the modern context. Significant government funds were allocated to enhance the police officers’ combat readiness. However, all of his rousing reports turned out to be an empty shell and an eyewash. In every single region, the police turned out to be ineffective and useless in dealing with crowds of various sizes and levels of aggression. As protests escalated, the morale of the internal affairs bodies reached a critically low level. Some executives that I had spoken to attempted to feign illness and wait it out, being afraid of making decisions. I am certain that, recognizing the danger to his own person, Turgumbayev adapted himself to the political climate and began to blame the NSC for everything or, to put is simply, deflected the blame.

On January 8, I was summoned to meet with the new chairman of the NSC, Yermek Sagimbayev. During the meeting, he demanded that I confirm links between Dzhumageldiyev and Masimov. I replied that I was not aware of any such thing. I actually spent the next few days in detention in my office. Naturally, no official record was made of that fact.

I knew they were trying to drag me in “by the head and ears” and did suspect they might arrest me. However, I was confident that I would prove my point and chose not to hide, instead opting to prove my innocence upon inquiry.

Unlike many so-called officers who decided to go ahead and flip-flop making slanderous and baseless accusations in an attempt to distance themselves from the previous leadership and demonstrate loyalty to the new team. Many, but not all. Some of them remained human and retained their officers’ dignity.

This cannot be said about Abish. He was suspended in January 2022, with no charges pressed against him for a long time. Efforts were made to take him out of criminal prosecution in every possible way resulting from undisclosed political arrangements between Nazarbayev and Tokayev. None of Nazarbayev’s clan members were charged with criminal offenses for a long time, except for Kairat Satybaldy. He was considered too radical (Nazarbayev's nephew, a retired NSC major general, and an entrepreneur who was convicted on embezzlement charges. — Ed.). Only after I made by public statement and in order to appease the public, did the prosecutors announce that a pre-trial investigation was underway against Abish and that he signed an undertaking not to leave as a form of detention. However, the criminal case was habitually classified as secret. In fact, Abish’s criminal case should be heard together with our case, but that would expose covert details that the authorities are hiding from the society, and the said defendant would have to openly and publicly admit to villainy and treason.

Counter-Terrorism Operation in Almaty. Photo: Valeriy Sharifulin / TASS

Counter-Terrorism Operation in Almaty. Photo: Valeriy Sharifulin / TASS

On the Political Nature of Persecution

The NSC has documentary evidence confirming the legality of my actions during the January events. However, the investigation deliberately failed to request and attach it. The decisions made on the motion to seize the documents containing the authorizations and resolutions of the NSC leadership, including those made by Abish, were totally opposite.

On January 6, together with Mazhilov, the head of the Department of the National Security Committee, who had earlier fled to Astana, I took a special flight to Almaty chartered by the NSC. The investigators allege that I took that flight on my own initiative. However, with reference to my level of seniority and subordination (level of jurisdiction), it would be impossible to organize and take a chartered flight. I flew out on the orders from Abish and Yergozhin to support Mazhilov, who had taken over as the ACOH head. The ACOH was located at the airport, and it was there that I assembled and relayed incoming information to Mazhilov for his decision making. That is how the decision was made to use Dzhumageldiyev’s men to guard hospitals in Almaty that had been attacked. The investigation team disregarded all of that.

And such examples are plentiful.

The blatant incompetence of the investigation is evident. I have presented compelling and irrefutable evidence of my own innocence, as well as arguments for the innocence of Dzhumageldiyev who only fulfilled Abish’s order at my request.

We are in no way connected to a conspiracy that we are not aware of. In an effort to expressly avoid the truth, the investigative team eventually and retroactively classified my testimony as secret.

The leader of the investigative team, Timur Kryldakov, repeatedly urged me to incriminate myself and falsely accuse the others, in keeping with a fictitious scenario, in exchange for a guaranteed change in my detention form and, ultimately, for a suspended sentence. According to his own words, the head of the presidential administration, Murat Nurtleu, is responsible for controlling and making decisions in this case. Seemingly, that information should have impressed me and made me submit humbly and agree to villainy and cowardice.

Once some of my arguments went public in court, the proceedings were closed. If the prosecution had had any compelling evidence, the trial would have remained open to the public. I am confident that in the future, when the trial videotape becomes publicly available, the prosecutors’ abuse of discretion and incompetence will be exposed for all to see.

Even now, the items that have been proven include evidence tampering, forgery, and professional incompetence of the investigators who cooked up the prosecution’s delirious version drawing upon guesswork, conjectures, and rumors.

I do not believe in a fair and just trial. Its outcome is predetermined. The prosecution is acting as the judge in this trial (without even hiding it particularly).

Consequences of Protests in Almaty Photo: Valeriy Sharifulin / TASS

Consequences of Protests in Almaty Photo: Valeriy Sharifulin / TASS

The authorities are using propaganda and controlled television and media to deceive the society by feeding lies and flat nonsense.

Initially, I and three other defendants were set to participate in the trial online, while the others were allowed to participate offline. We were locked in medieval-style metal cages.

As early as during the preliminary investigation, some of the defendants attempted suicide. Physically and mentally ill citizens were coerced into signing procedural documents in exchange for vital medical care or house arrest, only to induce them to incriminate themselves and confess to crimes they had not committed. During the investigation, the prosecutor general, Asylov, authorized the use of a whole range of “dirty” methods forbidden in a state governed by the rule of law.

All of that was brought to light and made public at the trial. There has been no such mistreatment of our citizens in our country’s recent history. It is a new punitive experience.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the defendants have no idea why they are held liable and why they are treated like social misfits or the enemies of the people that they have defended.

Our case is undoubtedly political. The root causes stem from the country elites struggling for power.

The number of victims during the January massacre was unprecedented. The authorities that issued an order to shoot the people under the pretext of dealing with non-existing militants and terrorists are shifting the liability for their crimes onto me and the other guys. (During his address to the nation on January 7, 2022, President Tokayev said that he had ordered the law-enforcement agencies and the army to shoot the militants to kill without warning.Ed.).

Those with power lack the foresight and understanding of the present moment and the prospects, as their inadequate and repressive measures are bound to provoke protest and opposition sentiments. It is unwise and dangerous.

We were ready to sacrifice everything, including our lives, for our motherland. But now we have confronted repressions, lawlessness, and a complete breakdown of law and order and will be forced by injustice to criticize and discredit this lying regime.

I need no sympathy or compassion. I do not consider myself guilty and I do not make excuses. What is important to me is to tell the truth without bias.

R. Iskakov

January 31, 2024

Prepared by Andrei Sukhotin

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