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16 November 2023

Kazakhstan: Former Minister of Economy Beat His Wife to Death, It Reignited the Country’s Ongoing Fight Against Femicide

This a heartbreaking story that has hit a nerve in Kazakhstani society reminding women that the fight for harsher domestic violence sentences is of utmost importance in a country with the lack of protection of women’s rights.

Kazakhstan: Former Minister of Economy Beat His Wife to Death, It Reignited the Country’s Ongoing Fight Against Femicide

Image: courtesy photo

For the past week, Kazakh social media and news organizations have been closely following the aftermath of a recent femicide. On the evening of 9 November, it was reported that the former Minister of Economy of Kazakhstan, Kuandyk Bishimbayev had beaten his wife Saltanat Nukenova to death at the BAU restaurant in Astana, Kazakhstan. Nukenova passed away before paramedics had arrived. 

This gruesome story is one of many recent femicides in Kazakhstan. According to Human Rights Watch, 93 women were killed in 10 months in 2022 in Kazakhstan as a result of domestic violence homicides, while “794 criminal cases of moderate and severe bodily harm” were opened. Yet, as this killer is someone who once was in such a high governmental position, it is even more egregious. On 11 November, it was reported that Bishimbayev was taken into custody by the police for two months as a suspect in the murder investigation. 

Who is Kuandyk Bishimbayev? 

Before becoming Minister of Economy, Bishimbayev had a successful and rapid career. After graduating from George Washington University in 2001—which he attended thanks to the governmental program Bolashak, aimed at sending Kazakhstani students to study at prestigious universities abroad to bring back their knowledge and build a better future for the country—he started climbing the ladder from a manager at the Development Bank of Kazakhstan JSC to changing his positions every year to those of higher status. Bishimbayev became an embodiment of the ‘Kazakh dream’ if there ever was one. In 2007, he became the Vice Minister of Industry and Trade, and in 2009, an assistant to the President, in 2010, the Vice Minister of Economic Development and Trade, and finally, in May 2016, he became the Minister of Economy. That, however, happened to be his last governmental position, as in December of that year he was removed from the post of Minister of Economy on suspicion of corruption. 

Image: baiterek.gov.kz/fb

In March 2018, the former minister was sentenced to ten years in prison for stealing one billion tenge that was allocated to the glass factory reconstruction in Kyzylorda. However, in October 2019, he was released on parole. Since then, he has been out of the spotlight, until now. 

Who is Saltanat Nukenova?

Not much is known about the deceased. It was revealed that Saltanat Nukenova was the niece of the former Pavlodar mayor, Kairat Nukenov. Ulys Media reported that she used to offer paid astrology sessions on her Instagram page. According to Nukenova’s cousin, Samal Nukenova, the two married last December. It was the second marriage for Bishimbayev. “At the end of September, we had a family event. Saltanat came in a jacket, under which she had a short-sleeved blouse. When she took off the jacket, we saw bruises on her arms. When we asked what happened, she quickly put her jacket back on and said that it was from a massage,” Nukenova’s cousin said in an interview with TengriNews.

The Outrage

Although the majority of citizens are grieving yet another instance of femicide in Kazakhstan, there are some bloggers who support the idea of forgiving Bishimbayev, stating that the family of Nukenova had forgiven him, Deutsche Welle reports. The uncle of the deceased has denied these claims. “For us, he is a monster and a murderer. We will never forgive him,” the former Pavlodar mayor said in an interview with the Kazakh journalist Bolat Amanbaev, Orda.kz reports. 

Another person to speak out publicly was the ex-wife of Bishimbayev, Nazym. She called it a tragedy and sent her condolences to Nukenova’s family. Nazym was married to the former minister for 14 years and got divorced in 2020, a year after Bishimbayev’s release from prison. The two have children together. 

A number of famous Kazakh influencers and bloggers expressed their positions in favor of harsher sentences for any form of femicide. One of the biggest podcasts in the country, Zamandas, prepared a new episode highlighting the “epidemic of domestic violence and violence in the country” talking about the unacceptable reality and the government’s lack of actions that lead to these repeated cases happening over again. Feminism activists started an online flashmob demanding to stop violence against women.          

Finally, the ongoing online petition, that was already signed by 114,000 people (at the time when the article was being written), appealed to reform the criminal and administrative legislation on domestic violence. This case became so infamous that even President Tokayev told the Ministry of Internal Affairs to “keep this case under special control,” TengriNews reports. 

The public reaction to this case is understandably overwhelming. It is a reminder for women in Kazakhstan how vulnerable they are in a country where sexism doesn’t show itself openly but is instead veiled in the laws that forgive the offender, in the police officers who refuse to accept the victims' reports of abuse, and even when they do, they force domestic violence and sexual assault survivors to reconcile with the abuser. This is the state of affairs in the country right now. And it makes any woman in Kazakhstan feel how little their lives matter, how easily they can be taken away, and how even after their death there will be those who will speak out in support of their killers.