Ex-spy chief jailed as elite power struggle widens in oil-rich Kazakhstan
A former director of Kazakhstan’s feared intelligence agency has been given a lengthy prison sentence, as a ruthless power struggle between rival factions surrounding the country’s president widens. From 2001 to 2006, Nartai Dutbayev directed the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB), a direct institutional descendant of the Soviet-era KGB. Founded in 1992, the KNB is today directly controlled by Kazakhstan’s authoritarian President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Many officials serving in senior KNB positions are members of the president’s family, or close friends.
For many years, Dutbayev enjoyed unchallenged power, which was afforded to him by way of his close links to the presidential palace. But in 2006, he resigned from his top KNB post in the aftermath of the murder of popular Kazakh opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbaev. Ten members of a specialist commando unit within the KNB were found guilty of Sarsenbaev’s murder. He was killed soon after he announced his decision to compete electorally against President Nazarbayev. But Dutbayev was never personally censured by the government. Then, in December of last year, Dutbayev was arrested on charges of “divulging government secrets”. The former spy chief’s trial began in July of this year, but was conducted in its entirety behind closed doors.
This past Monday it was reported that Dutbayev was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison for espionage on August 24. It is not known why Dutbayev’s sentence was announced to the country’s media more than two weeks after it was formally imposed by the court. Additionally, Kazakh authorities have said nothing about who Dutbayev is believed to have divulged government secrets to, or why. Three alleged accomplices of Dutbayev, including former senior KNB officials Erlan Nurtaev and Nurlan Khasen, were also sentenced to between three and five years in prison for espionage.
Many observers believe that the jailing of the KNB officials is part of a broader power struggle that is currently taking place between rival factions competing to succeed President Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s leader has ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron fist since before its independence from the USSR in 1991. The KNB appears to be a central player in the unfolding power struggle between the country’s governing elites. Almost exactly nine years ago, a Kazakh intelligence officer tried unsuccessfully to abduct another KNB former director, Alnur Musaev, who was living in self-imposed exile in Austria at the time. Many believe that he was acting under Nazarbayev’s direct orders. In 2014, two Kazakh men, believed to be KNB officers, tried unsuccessfully to abduct Viktor Khrapunov, Kazakhstan’s former Minister for Energy and Coal, who also served as mayor of Almati, before leaving Kazakhstan for Switzerland.
Dutbayev is reportedly already in prison. He is believed to be sharing a cell with Serik Akhmetov, Kazakhstan’s former prime minister, who is serving 11 years for alleged corruption.