Kazakhstan: Many of those killed in protests have direct bullet wounds to the head, with authorities cagey about the true death toll

Out of every burnt out window of Almaty’s City Hall comes the racket of metal against stone and the raking up of shards of glass.

For the first time since it was set on fire by protesters last Wednesday night, builders have gone in to start the process of gutting and re-building. It will be a long job.

The city of Almaty in Kazakhstan is getting back on its feet. Still under a state of emergency, it doesn’t feel that way anymore.

Shops, banks, gyms, restaurants are open. The CSTO peacekeeping mission, mostly Russian paratroopers, is pulling out. They should have withdrawn completely in a little over a week.

Almaty airport is back in operation with international flights resuming on Friday. Security forces are relaxed with the press.

On the face of things, life in this elegant Soviet city with its crest of snow-capped mountains is easing back into normality.

One of the few rallying cries heard across these protests was “Shal ket” (“Old Man Out”) – a plea from protesters to oust Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s long-time post-Soviet ruler, from his vice-like grip on power.

With the shuffling of the guard overseen over the past few days by current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the old man does indeed seem to have left the picture. But was it worth the price?

The number of dead is uncertain

The authorities are cagey about the true death toll, releasing one figure of 164, only to revoke it later.

Gruesome video from the morgue circulating on social media shows corridors lined with body bags, too many for standard process. Many of the corpses have direct bullet wounds to the head.

Morgues are terrible places. An agony of waiting for news you can’t bear to hear.

Two sets of families standing at the gates tell us their relatives hadn’t even been part of the protests. Alibek Kaliuly had been on a business trip to Almaty when he disappeared.

His cousin says he’d called his wife to say he was going to the shops and hadn’t been heard of since. He hadn’t even taken his coat, can’t have thought he’d be out for long.

The violence last week in Almaty erupted suddenly and was quashed with lethal force.

‘Velvet revolution destroyed by police batons’

The government’s claim after two nights of dramatic unrest that this was the work of terrorists and bandits gave the semblance of legitimacy both to Tokayev’s call to bring in the CSTO mission and to use lethal force.

“I think that a velvet revolution took place in Kazakhstan but this revolution was just destroyed, by force, with a police baton,” said Askhat Bersalimov, an Almaty-based political activist, who was out on the streets last week.

“The authorities used provocation to escalate the conflict so that it would be forced to use weapons against demonstrators,” another activist told us.

He used the fact that the assault on government buildings continued despite the fact there was shooting. “How could this happen?” He was scared for us to use his name.

10,000 people detained

The families of detainees are scared too. Human rights groups told us they’ve had only limited requests for assistance.

With 10,000 people detained, that is a remarkable indication of the timidity of those who find themselves on the wrong side of the authorities.

State-appointed lawyers, in Almaty at least, have still not been authorised to meet detainees. Lawyer Zhan Kunserkin, who was hired privately, told us he was shocked by what he saw when he visited his client in pre-trial detention.

“Half the detainees had gun shot wounds, many were in critical condition,” he said.

“People could not stand on their feet. My client has a gunshot wound to the leg and he is not getting the medical attention he needs.”

Lawsuits are going on online, via Zoom or WhatsApp – a way of processing the numbers fast.

Most will be charged with attendance of unsanctioned rallies but the loose characterisation of these demonstrations as a terrorist operation could mean some lose access to the few rights they should have.

President Tokayev is doing his best to assure the public that law and order is restored and that he’s listening to his people’s concerns. He may well be trying to think outside the system he inherited and which he himself grew up in.

The fate of the 10,000 detainees will be an early marker of whether or not he succeeds.

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