Heads roll in Kazakhstan months after child rape scandal

It was only when the story reached social media that authorities began to take action.

Chris Rickleton Aug 30, 2018

One of the loudest scandals in Kazakhstan’s history is coming to a quiet conclusion as an investigation into the neglect that allowed a young schoolboy to be repeatedly raped by older pupils wraps up with a wave of low-key dismissals.

The young boy, referred to in local media only by his first name, Nursultan, was just seven years old when he was set upon and molested by young teens from a neighboring school last summer.

The attack became a pattern involving regular sexual abuse and other physical violence. Most shockingly, his family’s long attempt to find justice was thwarted at every turn. 

It was not until news of a very local cover-up splashed all over Facebook that national-level elites took action. And even then, with considerable clumsiness.

Some six months on from the rape scandal breaking, at least five officials from local police and education services in southern Kazakhstan have been fired, the head of the Education Ministry’s child protection department said on August 29. A number of others received formal cautions.

There could still be further shake-ups, said the official, Nurbek Orshubekov, who did not reveal exactly when the dismissals took place. 

Nevertheless, it seems likely authorities will now seek to move on from a story that laid bare deep levels of public revulsion to the state.

Among the officials that Orushbekov said had been sacked is the head of the school that the attackers attended, Beibitkul Seltanova, who had previously been suspended pending investigation.

Her relative and a once-powerful local police boss, Bauyrzhan Seltanov, was among the first heads to roll back in April and he has been facing abuse of office charges ever since

The Seltanovs were at the heart of a crude face-saving operation that prevented Nursultan and his relatives accessing justice in the Southern Kazakhstan Region, which has since been renamed Turkestan Region.

Police had twice knocked back Nursultan’s grandmother’s attempt to file charges relating to the child’s rape before accepting them only to then sit on the case.

Public interest in the story spiked after a prominent activist reported that police had hauled the two of them off a train as they headed to Almaty, where the grandmother was planning to push the case forward. 

Beibitkul Seltanova even filed a defamation suit against an appointed representative for Nursultan who had deigned to accuse officer Bauyrzhan Seltanov of preventing charges being filed. While that lawsuit was precisely the type that might have been decided in favor of the politically privileged Seltanovs under normal circumstances, high levels of public scrutiny ensured that the local court dismissed the lawsuit as baseless.

The scandal’s public fallout may also have hastened the political retirement of a long-time loyalist of President Nursultan Nazarbayev — Sagipa Baliyeva.

Lawmaker Baliyeva was the ombudswoman for children at the time the scandal broke. She was strongly criticized for parading Nursultan in front of press in what many construed as crude self-promotion. Baliyeva also earned scorn for lambasting Nursultan’s mother, an internal migrant separated from her family due to the acute necessity of seeking employment in another part of the country.

Specifically, Baliyeva said she was “more of a mother” to Nursultan, who spent several days in her dubious custody, than his real mother.

Baliyeva’s behavior made her the lightning rod for public anger over the case, and predictably led for calls to her to be replaced in the unfunded and largely symbolic role. 

That happened, not in April, when social media was baying for her blood, but in June, when the story had already exited the news cycle. 

Public demands that her replacement come from the ranks of civil society were also ignored. New ombudswoman for children and fellow senator Saule Aitpayeva has spent most of her career working in the prosecutor’s office and is widely seen as another establishment figure.

Beyond pack-shuffling and recriminations is the broader question of whether the episode will trigger systemic improvements in social protections for children. But if meaningful, structural reforms are imminent, they were not stressed in Orshubekov’s press appearance.

Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.