Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Kazakhstan: Two years on, the journalist who asked questions is still missing

By Merhat Sharipzhan - RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

It is now two years since Oralghaisha Omarshanova, a journalist with the Astana-based weekly newspaper "Zakon i pravosudie" (Law and Justice), disappeared. She had just published an article focusing on a violent clash two weeks earlier between Chechens and Kazakhs in the villages of Malovodnoye and Kazatkom in southern Kazakhstan.

On March 17, 2007, hundreds of angry Kazakhs in Malovodnoye and Kazatkom killed three members of the Makmakhanov family and literally tore apart their property. According to the official version of what happened, hundreds of young Kazakhs surrounded the Makmakhanov family home on March 17 demanding an explanation for a quarrel the previous evening between Tahir, the youngest Makmakhanov brother, and a young Kazakh in which Makmakhanov allegedly shot the Kazakh in the leg.

The Makmakhanov brothers refused to come out of the house and opened fire from the windows, killing two Kazakhs and wounding nine more. The angry Kazakhs then attacked the house and killed three of the Makmakhanov brothers, then set fire to the building.

Most Kazakh media coverage of the incident focused primarily on the fact that the violence pitted one ethnic group against another. Omarshanova was the first journalist to ask a different set of questions: How did a fourth brother, Vitta Makmakhanov, come to be in the house at the time of the attack, and why was he not killed too? Vitta Makmakhanov was being held under investigation for murder in Zhezqazghan, over 700 kilometers away: why, and on whose say-so, was he released and allowed to return to his family home?

Moreover, the standoff outside the Makmakhanovs' house lasted for several hours, and it would have been impossible for local police not to notice the hundreds of Kazakhs and not to hear the gunshots and shouting. Why then did the police not intervene to protect the Chechens, who were chased around the village and then beaten to death, or fight the fire before the building burned to ashes? Was somebody hoping that Vitta Makmakhanov would also be killed, because he knew too much?

More Than Meets The Eye

That latter question was particularly sensitive insofar as Vitta Makmakhanov was a suspect in the killing of Sagit Shokputov, a Kazakh businessman who was very influential in Zhezqazghan. A former top manager at KazakhMys, Kazakhstan's copper-producing giant, the 36-year-old Shokputov was shot dead near his home in Zhezqazghan on November 28, 2006. Zhezqazghan police arrested Vitta Makmakhanov as a suspect the same day.

Omarshanova had written about Shokputov's assassination and knew the name of the main suspect. On February 28 and March 7, 2007, shortly before the bloodbath in Malovodnoye and Kazatkom, she published two articles in "Zakon i pravosudie" outlining her own theory on why Shokputov was killed. She focused on the fact that state-controlled media began incriminating Shokputov in criminal activities shortly before he was killed, and asked why all of a sudden a man who had for years controlled KazakhMys's output had been branded a "bad guy."

On March 26, she published a further article giving her own interpretation of the events in Malovodnoye, and for the first time highlighted the fact that one of the members of the Chechen family that was attacked was a suspect in Shokputov's killing.

Omarshanova also noted in that article that one of the Makmakhanov brothers, Amir, had direct ties with KazakhMys. She further pointed out that the eldest Makmakhanov brother, Khadzhimurat, was a high-ranking member of Kazakhstan's Board of Judges; that Shamil Makmakhanov was involved in the oil business; and that Nadhzmitdin Makmakhanov worked for Almaty City Prosecutor's Office.

Omarshanova's colleague Mukhit Iskakov told a press conference in Almaty on April 20, 2007, three weeks after she vanished, that she began receiving telephone threats after that final article, and bought a gun for self-protection. On March 28, Iskakov traveled with Omarshanova from Astana to Almaty, where they planned to continue the investigation. He saw her for the last time on March 30.

Omarshanova's relatives and colleagues believe that she was most probably killed because of her investigation into developments connected with KazakhMys, or the Makmakhanov clan, or both.

Merhat Sharipzhan is senior editor of Headline News at RFE/RL and the former head of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

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