Activist on trial – victim of feud between ex-president and fugitive banker? - Exclusive

Activist on trial – victim of feud between ex-president and fugitive banker?

A Kazakh political activist is facing 10 years in jail.

The general public know nothing about Marat Zhylanbayev. His unregistered party Alga, Qazaqstan! (Onward Kazakhstan!) has only a few supporters.

Why does the government want to lock him up for 10 years?

The Kazakh government does try to stem any grass-root opposition activism. But the harshness of the punishment sought for Zhylanbayev by prosecutors is more to do with his alleged link to Mukhtar Ablyazov, a longtime personal enemy of the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Once one of the young favourites in the Nazarbayev government, Ablyazov was among those who turned against their patron by setting up an opposition movement in 2001.

The movement was swiftly crushed and Ablyazov was jailed. Then, after writing a repentance letter to Nazarbayev, he was pardoned. Ablyazov then turned to banking, creating BTA, at the same time funding opposition groups and media.

A few years later, he fled abroad, allegedly with 6bn dollars of BTA funds.

Once outside Kazakhstan, Ablyazov became an open and fierce critic of Nazarbayev.

There have always been questions about the sincerity of Ablyazov’s opposition activism. With the criminal charges he was facing at home, he needed the status of a political refugee to avoid extradition.

He was granted refugee status in France in 2020, but in December 2022 the French authorities revoked it. Ablyazov has appealed. However, the chances of him winning his appeal have become slimmer since Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Astana in early November.

With time, Ablyazov’s social media statements aimed at stirring up an uprising against the Kazakh government have sounded more and more erratic and emotional.

Although many Kazakhs may sympathise with Ablyazov’s criticism of the government, only a few are ready to follow his calls for action. He repeatedly pledged to bring ‘millions’ out onto the streets, but only managed to ‘inspire’ a few hundred across the country.

Zhylanbayev went on trial on 30 October on charges of financing the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which was created by Ablyazov.

Zhylanbayev was arrested in March after protesting outside the EU embassy in Astana calling for sanctions against the Kazakh government for alleged support for Russia’s Putin.

Zhylanbayev has also been demanding an open investigation into the deadly January 2022 unrest, which left 227 people dead – there are lots of questions about what exactly happened. He has also been calling for investigations into former president Nazarbayev’s rule and into the dealings of his associates and family members.

According to those who personally know Zhylanbayev, he is an idealist who cannot stand injustice and sincerely wants changes in Kazakhstan towards more freedom and fairness. He is also a famous marathon runner, who has run through all the major deserts in the world, earning a mention for that in the Guinness Book of Records.

The trial is closed, but according to Zhylanbayev’s lawyer Meyirzhan Doskarayev the court has failed to prove any evidence to support the charges.

Zhylanbayev’s daughter has said that their family is facing “constant intimidation” on the part of the authorities.

The government’s response to Ablyazov-inspired activism has always been disproportionately harsh. Several activists linked to Ablyazov have been jailed.  

Zhylanbayev may just be the latest collateral damage from the continuing Nazarbayev-Ablyazov feud.

For years the Kazakh government has been waging a legal battle against Ablyazov in courts in Europe and the US to recover the stolen BTA funds and secure his extradition to Kazakhstan.

In summer a court in New York found Ablyazov guilty of stealing and laundering more than 193m dollars of BTA Bank’s money in the United States.

Ablyazov was twice tried in absentia in Kazakhstan. In 2017 he was sentenced to 20 years in jail for fraud. In 2018 he was given a life sentence for alleged involvement in the killing of a banking partner, Yerzhan Tatishev.

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