Opposition leaders in Kazakhstan accused authorities Tuesday of responsibility for the slaying of a government critic and former confidant of President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, the second violent death of a major opposition figure in three months.
The execution-style killing of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, his driver and bodyguard came as a severe embarrassment to the government and could raise questions about political stability in the oil-rich Central Asian country of 15 million.
“This was a brutal killing that someone ordered,” opposition leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who ran unsuccessfully against Nazarbayev in the December presidential election, said at a news conference in Almaty, the country’s largest city and former capital. “He and his entourage, their hands tied, were driven out of town and gunned down in cold blood.”
Before breaking with Nazarbayev a few years ago, Sarsenbayev was among the president’s closest confidants, Yermurat Bapi, editor of the opposition newspaper Dzhuma Times, said in a telephone interview from Almaty.
“He knew the weak spots of the authorities,” Bapi said. “He knew a great deal about Nazarbayev, including things that were confidential.... The authorities did not need him around.”
The bodies of Sarsenbayev and his companions were discovered early Monday. All three men had been slain by shots to the back and the head, and the hands of driver and bodyguard had been tied, according to the Almaty prosecutor’s office.
Deputy Kazakh Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov, who was put in charge of the investigation, told the Russian news agency Interfax that the killings “may have been motivated by extremism and by plans to destabilize Kazakhstan.”
The death of the president’s critic also could be linked to his financial activities or family matters, Kasymov said. “We think that assertions about political motives behind the murder that have been made by Sarsenbayev’s associates are premature,” he said.
Bapi, the editor, said he thought the killing was politically motivated because Sarsenbayev had no business activities that could explain it.
The Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei reported that a document labeled “Statement of Non-Governmental Organizations and Citizens” was circulated Monday in Almaty declaring that “a death squad the authorities formed of ex-servicemen of secret services is operating in Kazakhstan.”
Sarsenbayev’s death came after the unexplained killing in November of another former Nazarbayev ally turned opposition leader, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, who was found dead in his home from two gunshot wounds to the chest and one to his head. Authorities have said they believe Nurkadilov’s death was a suicide, a conclusion ridiculed by government critics as an apparent physical impossibility.
The U.S. Embassy in Almaty issued a statement expressing sadness at Sarsenbayev’s death and calling on authorities to conduct “an immediate and thorough investigation.”
Sarsenbayev, who served in 2002 and 2003 as the Kazakh ambassador to Russia, broke with Nazarbayev and joined the opposition Ak Zhol party in 2003. While remaining co-chairman of that party, he agreed to serve as Nazarbayev’s information minister before parliamentary elections in 2004.
At that time, he told the Los Angeles Times that Nazarbayev must choose “where he is going to move our country: to the side of our southern neighbors, with their authoritarianism, or to the side of Eastern Europe, where due to political and social reforms people live in much better conditions.”
Sarsenbayev condemned the election as unfair, quit his post and subsequently worked only with the opposition. A court found him guilty last year of defaming one of the president’s daughters, Dariga Nazarbayeva, with accusations concerning her influence in the nation’s media.
Sarsenbayev had recently been working on a lengthy article about the privatization of media outlets in Kazakhstan, with emphasis on the role played by Nazarbayeva, Vremya Novostei reported.
He was also a leader of the For a Just Kazakhstan coalition, which backed Tuyakbai in the December election.
Asar, the political party headed by Nazarbayeva, who is seen as a possible successor to her father, released a statement saying that “the tragic death of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a cynical, cold-blooded murder of a well-known politician, causes grief, indignation and resentment.”
Natasha Yefimova of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.