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People in Kazakhstan are gripped by the country's first live-streamed trial

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Kazakhstan, people have been mesmerized by the country's first ever live-streamed trial. It's the trial of a former government minister who was accused of murdering his wife. The case has spotlighted the issue of domestic violence in the Central Asian country, an offense that's only recently been criminalized. NPR's Above the Fray fellow Valerie Kipnis has this report. And this is where I need to tell you that this next story contains detailed descriptions of violence.

VALERIE KIPNIS, BYLINE: In Kazakhstan right now, it's hard to find anyone who isn't caught up in the details of the Quandyq Bishimbayev trial. It began in November of last year, when CCTV footage captured the former economy minister kicking and punching his 31-year-old wife, Saltanat Nukenova, to death. In the video recorded in a VIP room at a relative's restaurant, you can see a shirtless Bishimbayev dragging her around by the hair, slamming her against walls as she falls to the ground repeatedly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

KIPNIS: Nukenova's injuries were so extensive that during the trial, it took more than half an hour for a forensic expert to demonstrate all the beatings that led to her death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

KIPNIS: Ultimately, Nukenova died of brain trauma. Her husband admitted that as she lay there, her face bruising, he called a fortune-teller to seek guidance. By the time he called an ambulance, Nukenova was already dead, according to forensic reports. But despite the evidence, Bishimbayev claims he didn't mean to kill her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUANDYQ BISHIMBAYEV: (Speaking Russian).

KIPNIS: "I didn't kill her with any malice or any intent," he told the court. His repeated protestations were all too much for Nukenova's mother, who was also in the courtroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALIMIRA NURKLEBEKOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIPNIS: "How dare you say you didn't brutally kill her?" Alimira Nurklebekova screamed at her son-in-law. "They didn't even let me see my daughter, see her face when I buried her."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NURKLEBEKOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIPNIS: Bishimbayev has been charged on two counts - murder committed with extreme cruelty and torture. He used to be known as the golden boy of politics, tainted by a conviction for corruption, for which he was quickly pardoned by a previous president, seemingly untouchable. This trial has galvanized public opinion on an issue that the country has been grappling with for some time - domestic violence. According to the country's general prosecutor's office, there are 300 domestic violence reports filed every day. The case is dominating conversation in the country everywhere.

(Speaking Russian).

SVETLANA: (Speaking Russian).

KIPNIS: Svetlana is a mother of two boys, and like everyone else I spoke to on the street, she was too nervous to give her full name. In this former Soviet bloc country, distress and fear of authority still makes people wary. She told me that this case doesn't just touch the family of Bishimbayev and Nukenova. It touches the lives of all women in Kazakhstan. "It's a watershed moment for us in Kazakhstan," she said.

Many see this trial as a moment of truth for the country that actually decriminalized domestic violence in 2017. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has made reform and accountability a major part of his political platform, so many see this as a test for him, too. Last month, Tokayev signed new legislation toughening spousal abuse laws and advancing women's rights and safety, and it reinstated domestic violence as a criminal offense.

KHALIDA AZHIGULOVA: The main reason why the law was not adopted for such a long time is because of lack of the political will.

KIPNIS: Khalida Azhigulova, a scholar and activist in international law and human rights, has been fighting for this law since 2019. While Azhigulova and other activists are satisfied with this victory for now, the law still fails to explicitly make domestic violence a standalone offense, and it fails to take other kinds of violence into account.

AZHIGULOVA: Stalking, kidnapping, bride kidnapping, coercion into marriage - unfortunately, such offenses still exist in our country.

KIPNIS: The new legislation has been dubbed Saltanat's Law, in Nukenova's memory, which is something that gives Nukenova's brother, Aitbek Amangeldi, some small comfort.

AITBEK AMANGELDI: She was kind. She was strong.

KIPNIS: Saltanat's brother has spent the last few months inside the courtroom as a key prosecution witness.

AMANGELDI: Right now, with this case, we are shifting public opinion. The things what Kazakh woman was silent about before - right now they're screaming.

KIPNIS: I caught up with him right after he delivered his closing arguments.

AMANGELDI: Me and Saltanat - we planned to take our parents to some vacation. We talked about it. So I have to do it by myself now.

KIPNIS: For NPR News, I'm Valerie Kipnis in Almaty.

MARTIN: In the past few hours, a Kazakhstan court has found Bishimbayev guilty for murdering his wife and sentenced him to 24 years in prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Valerie Kipnis