He has pledged that 27-year-old Aizada Kanatbekova’s recent murder will be the last in Kyrgyzstan’s “history” of bride kidnappings. And stressed that “Law and order should be higher than everything.” But how Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, the Central Asian country’s main political leader, plans to end abductions for forced marriages remains unclear.
Under newly adopted constitutional amendments that emphasize the importance of “traditions and customs,” striking out directly at bride kidnapping, considered by many Kyrgyz to be both a tradition and a custom, arguably poses potential political risks. Yet, for a politician who initially came to power in 2020 with calls to restore rule of law, and now, under Kyrgyzstan’s revived presidential system, holds ultimate responsibility for government policies, failing to deliver on his pledges could also prove problematic.
Already, moderately sized street protests have occurred outside government buildings in the capital, Bishkek, and second-largest city, Osh, by citizens enraged that police, they say, learned nothing from the 2018 stabbing death of another bride-kidnapping victim, 20-year-old Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy.
А CCTV camera had recorded Kanatbekova’s kidnapping in Bishkek two days before her body and that of her presumed kidnapper, 36-year-old Zamirbek Tengizbaev, were found along a rural road south of the capital, Bishkek, on April 7. Police hypothesize that Tengizbaev strangled the young woman to death after she refused to marry him, and then slit a vein to kill himself.
“How many more deaths do we have to have before our law enforcement organs will start reacting in time?” one Bishkek protester, who gave her name as Asyl, asked on April 8. “If we’re quiet … this will continue.”
In response to such sentiments, both the president and Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov have stated they will exercise personal control over the investigation into Kanatbekova’s death. For his part, Interior Minister Ulan Niyazbekov assured parliament that his ministry “won’t dodge responsibility” and senses its “moral guilt.”
To date, 44 police officials, including the chief of the Bishkek police, have been fired for negligence in this bride-kidnapping case. An investigation is ongoing.
Nonetheless, when lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov, an attorney for Kanatbekova’s mother, came to the State Committee for National Security on April 12 to speak with the responsible investigator, he claims that he went away after three hours without learning the individual’s identity.
Police in Balykchy, the Lake Issyk-Kul town that was Kanatbekova’s hometown, have only asked neighbors for a description of the young woman, Toktakunov alleged to the news outlet 24.kg.
No one has spoken with Kanatbekova’s mother, Nazgul Shakenova, who contacted police after her daughter’s April 5 abduction., he claimed.
“Five days have passed since the corpse was found, and, by law, the victim (the next of kin – ed) must be involved in the case, get acquainted with the materials for experts, and be questioned,” elaborated Toktakunov. “But no one has ever talked to Aizada's mother about the case.”
The police, he charged, appear to want to whitewash their failure to prevent Kanatbekova’s death.
Police officials do not appear to have responded to these allegations.
Kanatbekova’s mother and aunt, though, insist that Bishkek police had the information to have rescued the young woman, but chose to ignore it.
Footage from a CCTV camera documented the woman’s kidnapping in Bishkek by three men and showed the license plate and make of the car they used to abduct her. A taxi was used by one of the men to leave the scene.
Nazgul Shakenova remembers her daughter saying that Tengizbaev had been pursuing her “like a maniac.” The woman claims that she provided police with the phone numbers from which her daughter had been called, Tengizbaev’s name, and his photos from the Odnoklassniki social network.
But Bishkek police officers appeared to see Kanatbekova’s kidnapping more as a rite of passage than as a crime, her mother and aunt told Current Time.
“They said: ‘You’ll live it up at the wedding! The matchmakers will come to you soon, you’ll see!’” recounted Nazgul Shakenova.
After April 5, police did not phone to follow up on the case, Shakenova alleged. When Shakenova and her sister, Baktygul, themselves called on April 7, an officer told them simply “We’re working,” Baktygul Shakenova said.
Urging the two women not to worry, one investigator, named Ularbek, recollected how his own bride kidnapping had ended in a wedding, with him “drinking and partying” with his bride, she claimed.
“Are you going to look for her at all?” Baktygul Shakenova remembers asking in frustration.
In the end, a shepherd found the bodies of Kanatbekova and Tengizbaev and contacted the police.
Like many of her generation, Kanatbekova, a recent graduate of Bishkek’s Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University, had been preparing to move to Turkey for work. She reportedly hoped to earn enough money to build her single mother a house, friends say.
Kanatbekova’s kidnapping occurred the week before her scheduled flight to Turkey.
Four Bishkek men suspected of involvement in the kidnapping have been detained and a criminal case into the abduction has been opened. Bride kidnapping is punishable by up to 5 years in prison under Kyrgyz law.
But, apart from prosecutions, protesters have still other demands for the government.
They have set April 15 as a deadline for the resignation of Interior Minister Niyazbekov. They also have demanded that the Kyrgyz Criminal Code no longer define bride kidnapping apart from any other form of kidnapping – a distinction that some feel feeds into the widespread perception of the practice as a Kyrgyz “custom,” rather than a crime.
One opposition parliamentarian, Ajsuluu Mamashova, one of 19 female members of parliament, has proposed yet another reform: Naming a woman as Kyrgyzstan’s new interior minister since, she reasons, bride kidnapping “is the fault of a man.”
As many as 23 percent of all women in Kyrgyzstan, a nation of some 6 million people, have experienced bride kidnapping, the United Nations Population Fund reported in 2017.
Female relatives of the abductors often act as accessories. Other women stay silent. A woman shown crossing the street behind Kanatbekova during her kidnapping did nothing to intervene, according to CCTV footage.
As yet, nothing suggests that the government sees appointing a woman as interior minister as a way to end bride kidnapping. Nor that it is inclined to negotiate with critics.
On April 8, Prime Minister Maripov emerged from government headquarters to assure Bishkek demonstrators that the government would share the results of its investigation into Kanatbekova’s death, but stressed that protesters were wasting their time.
“The problem won’t be resolved by your standing here,” Maripov said, addressing the predominantly female crowd with a bullhorn.
Cries of “For shame!” followed him back inside the building.
With additional reporting from: 24.kg, Radio Azattyk, Reuters, RFE/RL, and Vesti.kg