Why would a large percentage of the population believe that Vladislav Chelakh is innocent without knowing the details of the massacre in the Alatau Mountains?
"People are willing to believe anything, just not the official viewpoint," says Sergei Perchalsky, a local journalist in Karagandy who is familiar with both sides: the people and the regime. He suggests we meet at an inconspicuous café in the center of town.
"In his need for admiration, Nazarbayev announces a new victory every day. He brought the OSCE summit and the Asian Winter Games to Kazakhstan, and now Expo 2017," Perchalsky says. "But these aren't the victories of ordinary people." Those people, he explains, are constantly forced to deal with Nazarbayev's bureaucrats, his mayors, police officers and judges -- all of whom are corrupt.
"Some 10,000 people are waiting for apartments in Karagandy, while government officials are selling off housing," Perchalsky says. "Construction contracts can only be secured with substantial bribes, and when the interior minister recently visited the city, every policeman had to spend $200 for a suitable gift for the visiting dignitary -- unofficially, of course."
Members of the political elite tend to use weapons to settle disputes and get rid of members of the opposition. Nazarbayev's former son-in-law is suspected of involvement in several murders, and a former prime minister has fled the country.
"You can buy anything in Kazakhstan," says Perchalsky, "a driver's license, a school diploma, a ministerial post or a contract killer. The practical aspect of it all is that you can settle any infraction of the law with money -- any. And people know it. The Chelakhs, however, are poor and can't even use this method to free their boy."
Serik Sarsenov, Chelakh's 60-year-old attorney, has been practicing for a long time. He has defended journalists and participated in political murder trials. He spent 20 years with the police's criminal investigation division, and he is all too familiar with how the police and the courts operate. And now he is defending Chelakh.
Sarsenov was given 40 hours to read the 53 binders of documents. And then the court denied all of his motions. He summoned witnesses, called for expert witnesses and requested the release of classified files. But it was all in vain. "This system," says Sarsenov, "is like a cancer that has formed metastases everywhere."
But if Chelakh is innocent, what happened at the Chinese border?
Journalist Guljan Yergalieva knows what they're saying in political discussion groups in Almaty. The government has banned her newspaper, Svoboda Slova ("Freedom of Speech"), her website guljan.org was shut down in December, and tax investigators have searched her house.
"The last few months have been the worst in Kazakhstan's more recent history," Yergalieva says. "It began with the shooting of the 17 striking oil workers, when the police fired on fellow Kazakhs for the first time. Then came the Chelakh case." The army is also deeply corrupt, she says, and the wealthy clans are getting more and more ruthless in their struggle for the country's oil billions.
"The people surrounding Nazarbayev are terrified that they could lose control of the country," Yergalieva continues. They don't understand why the 72-year-old president is playing his wealthy daughters, sons-in-law and government officials off each other rather than designating a successor. "They want to force him out of office, like (former Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev or (former Russian President Boris) Yeltsin, by proving that Nazarbayev can no longer guarantee the stability of Kazakhstan," Yergalieva says. "They are provoking all kinds of incidents, possibly including what happened in the Alatau Mountains."
Still, perhaps something much simpler was behind the murders. Could border officials have been trying to cover up some sort of illegal dealings in the mountains? Or was the massacre the work of the intelligence service?
Those who had previously dismissed such explanations as conspiracy theories may have changed their tune after Dec. 25, when a military aircraft crashed near Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan, killing all 27 people on board. The dead included the new head of the border guard, who had been appointed after the massacre in the Alatau Mountains, and his top staff officers.
The new director had been trying to reform the corrupt agency. The plane, an Antonov An-72, is considered a reliable aircraft and had just been serviced. It was already a ball of flames when it crashed, as if there had been an explosion on board.