By Lukasz Michalski (Poland), international relations expert
On November 29, Marat Zhylanbaev, leader of an unregistered party called “Alga, Kazakhstan!”, was convicted of financing an extremist organization banned in Kazakhstan by court order, namely the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK or DCK), which is also associated with Alga!. Zhylanbaev is a celebrity for his achievements as a marathon runner and holds seven world records listed in the Guinness Book of Records. Based on findings revealed in this case, however, he appears to have has used this fame from his athletic feats to help further the cause of his associate Mukhtar Ablyazov, an exiled criminal fugitive residing in France.
The true intent of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan
Mukhtar Ablyazov, currently residing in Paris, is an internationally notorious figure facing serious charges of fraud and money laundering on a grand scale, most significantly with regards to his embezzlement of billions of U.S. dollars from a bank in his homeland Kazakhstan before fleeing the country. His legal predicaments extend across continents, including a criminal conviction in the UK and a recent jury verdict in New York, which have collectively resulted in judgments against him exceeding $5 billion.
Ablyazov has so far managed to avoid extradition from Europe by positioning himself as a Kazakhstani political opposition figure and by founding the Alga, Kazakhstan! party to support this claim. This allows him to paint the outstanding charges against him simply as attempts by the authorities in Kazakhstan to suppress the opposition. Interestingly, several other names implicated in his alleged fraudulent activities have also been associated with his political movement.
While the DVK/DCK is often presented by Ablyazov and his associates as a peaceful movement, there is evidence pointing to the involvement of Ablyazov and his allies (like Vladimir Kozlov, for instance) in instigating violence in Kazakhstan, such as the deadly 2011 uprising in Zhanaozen city. Regarding this incident, telephone transcripts clearly show Ablyazov and his cohorts discussing how ‘cut-throats’ would arrange an ‘upheaval,’ ensuring that ‘blood is going to be spilled.’
In another incident on Kazakhstan’s Republic Day on October 25, 2022, Ablyazov tried to organize mass protests that ultimately did not materialize. As evident from public statements, he promised significant financial rewards to individuals and law enforcement officers who would publicly oppose the government. According to Ablyazov, these funds would be sourced from the state budget, the National Fund, as well as from assets confiscated from the family of the former president of Kazakhstan.
Zhylanbaev has served as the head of Ablyazov’s movement
Marat Zhylanbaev’s saga began with his arrest in May 2023 in Astana as part of a criminal investigation where he was accused of being involved in outlawed DVK’s financing. Additionally, he was alleged to have worked at the direction of convicted criminal Mukhtar Ablyazov. Throughout his detention, Zhylanbaev reportedly embarked on a ‘wet’ hunger strike, resulting in over 13 kilograms of weight loss. In the meantime, Ablyazov’s unregistered Alga! Kazakhstan party persists, seemingly bolstered by international support behind attacking the government of Kazakhstan for alleged human rights violations.
The evidence presented by the prosecution in the case against Zhylanbaev in Kazakhstan included two bank transfers made by him in February 2023, which they argued showed financing of extremist activities. Zhylanbaev’s lawyer, in turn, claimed that the funds were intended to support ‘independent candidates’ in the parliamentary elections and cover their registration fees.
The court ultimately found Zhylanbaev guilty of operating at the direction of Ablyazov; he had provided material support, including financial, information, and other services, in collaboration with the coordinator of the DVK headquarters. Given the history and charges surrounding Ablyazov and DVK, these actions were interpreted as attempts to forcibly change the constitutional system of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
The Kazakhstani court substantiated its verdict with witness testimonies, expert opinions, physical evidence, and other materials from the criminal case. Consequently, Zhylanbaev was sentenced to seven years in prison and was deprived of the right to engage in social and political activities, including using media and telecommunications networks, for a period of three years.
As always, some Western human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and the International Partnership for Human Rights, appear eager to present Zhylanbaev as a victim of state abuse without considering that the basis of the political movement he represents are Ablayzov’s stolen funds and criminal activities.
It seems dishonest to ignore the egregious felonies of a criminal organization that robbed the people of Kazakhstan of at least $5 billion (according to various international court judgements), and not to question the motives behind Ablyazov supporting a so-called opposition movement. It is also concerning that some respectable human rights organizations validate such violations and, thus open the Pandora box for continuous efforts by undemocratic forces to undermine the concept of rule of law and justice.
As much local and international fame as celebrities may have, they should not be immune to criminal prosecution, especially if they are found guilty of involvement in organized crime. The star of the American hit “Sopranos” Anthony Borgese, for instance, pleaded guilty in 2011 to participating in a mafia extortion plot with New York’s Gambino crime family. American rappers Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow were likewise among 32 alleged gang members named in a 140-count indictment. In other words, there is no shortage of news stories about celebrities facing consequences for engaging in illegal activities.
Nonetheless, some opinion leaders thought Marat Zhylanbaev’ status as a supermarathon runner should have granted him special legal cover in Kazakhstan. If they genuinely care about the future of democracy, they should instead investigate how Ablyazov uses popular figures such as Zhylanbaev to destabilize the system and undermine the very concept of human rights.
Previously, human rights authorities around the world showed support for Mukhtar Ablyazov’s DVK and its representatives. This stance, however, visibly shifted following the above-mentioned jury trial in the Southern District of New York, which once again confirmed Ablyazov’s role in defrauding a Kazakhstani bank and laundering a portion of the funds through U.S. properties. Given his clear and open association with Ablyazov and his motivations, the charges against Zhylanbaev in Kazakhstan’s courts are not receiving the same level of international sympathy as they once did. In terms of focusing on real issues to strengthen democracy and human rights, this is a promising trend.