A representative of Reporters Without Borders and the Damocles Network visited Almaty, Kazakhstan, from 12 to 24 July to investigate the circumstances of the death of Leila Bayseitova, the daughter of journalist and opposition activist Lira Bayseitova, who had reported the death to the two organizations at the end of June.
Download the report (.pdf, about 200 Kb)
A representative of Reporters Without Borders and the Damocles Network visited Almaty, Kazakhstan, from 12 to 24 July to investigate the circumstances of the death of Leila Bayseitova, the daughter of journalist and opposition activist Lira Bayseitova, who had reported the death to the two organizations at the end of June. Leila Bayseitova, 25, died in the city ’s hospital on 21 June, after five days a coma. She had been admitted to the hospital’s emergency department in very unclear circumstances shortly after being arrested for "possession of drugs" and held in one of the city’s police stations. Suicide while in detention ? Police foul-up ? An attempt to blackmail or intimidate her mother that got out of control ? A political killing ? The mission aimed to answer to these questions.
At first, the lack of information about the case and the confused official explanations prevented any understanding of the chain of events leading to the young woman’s death. During his inquiries in Almaty, the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative had hoped to reconstruct the sequence of events of 16 June, when Leila was arrested by a unit of the drugs squad and then handed over to officers in a district police station. It was the latter who, after several hours of questioning and a brief period of detention in a cell, called the emergency medical service to take the woman, who was by then in a state of unconsciousness approaching coma.
In his meetings with the relevant authorities, journalists and local human rights defenders, the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles investigator was able to obtain not only the official version of events but also various hypotheses about the reasons for this death. Moreover, in the course of long conversations with Leila’s mother, other family members and friends, the investigator tried to build a picture of Leila’s personality and personal evolution in order to better understand the events leading to her death.
Personal and political context
Reporters Without Borders has for some years observed a progressive deterioration in the situation of press freedom in Kazakhstan, a country in which the authorities nonetheless had the reputation of being more tolerant than their Uzbek and Turkmen neighbours. Government and economic pressure, abuse of inapplicable legislation concerning the use of the Kazakh language in the media, accusations of offending the "honour and prestige" of President Nursultan Nazarbayev - a crime punishable by three years in prison - this seems to be the daily fare of journalists in Kazakhstan. Since their creation by the government, state commissions that are supposed to oversee an equitable allocation of radio and television frequencies have systematically penalized the independent and opposition media. In the past six months of 2002, the repression against the press has nonetheless changed in tone and method, and there has been a series of cases of verbal intimidation, especially by means of anonymous phone calls, and physical attacks against journalists. This has been highlighted in the monitoring carried out by Adil Soz (www.adilsoz.kz), a local organization defending the freedom of the Kazakh press, by the May 2002 report of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and by Reporters Without Borders’ protest letters in 2002.
Aged 49, Lira Bayseitova is part of the small circle of journalists in Almaty who are close to opposition groups (in the country or in exile), but she is neither the most prominent nor the most virulent. The weekly Respublika 2000, which she created after participating unsuccessfully in the 1999 parliamentary elections, was reputed to be moderate and above all open to all the country’s political currents. It was the only publication to carry several articles on the problems of the country’s Uighur minority. Intellectuals, writers and politicians often contributed articles on a range of subjects. Many opposition journalists were given a welcome, including Sergey Duvanov, the very critical former editor in chief of the influential opposition magazine, 450 Fahrenheit, now closed. Nonetheless, she wrote several, quite sensational articles on the origins of President Nazarbayev’s election campaign funds. In particular, she revealed that he had hired US advisors and paid them $35,000 a month. She received several threatening telephone calls, as did Respublika 2000 employees, at the end of January 2001. She was also physically attacked outside her home by an unidentified individual, an attack which she links to the publication of an article criticizing the director of a local refinery. Harassment by authorities and a libel suite filed by the Minister of Culture finally led her to close her publication in April 2002. She then envisaged launching a Web site, managed from the United States and financed with opposition funds.
She went to Switzerland from 29 April to 12 May 2002 in response to an invitation from the local section of Reporters Without Borders for a series of lectures. While there, she succeeded in interviewing Geneva public prosecutor Bernard Bertossa, who confirmed to her the existence of bank accounts in Switzerland in the name of President Nazarbayev, two former prime ministers and relatives that had been blocked by the Swiss judicial authorities. This was not, however, an exclusive, as reports of the existence of these accounts had been appearing in the Kazakh opposition press for at least six months. After the opposition daily SolDat published this interview on 22 May, unidentified individuals forced their way into the newspaper’s office, held journalists present and broke computer equipment. In Lira Bayseitova’s view, her daughter’s arrest on 16 June was an escalation in the pressure against her since the interview’s publication, especially as she allegedly received a further telephone threat on 23 May.
Leila, aged 25 and a final-year law student, lived for the most part with her mother and her 7-year-old son in an apartment in the centre of Almaty. Separated from her husband for the past five years or so, she was nonetheless on good terms with him. When her mother was still putting out Respublika 2000, Leila oversaw the newspaper’s provincial sales.
Lira Bayseitova saw her daughter for the last time on 23 May 2002. Lira recalls that they had argued that day, as often happened, about both everyday subject and more "political" issues. "For a year, my daughter had often reproached me for my involvement with the opposition. For my part, I had criticized her because of my well-founded suspicions that she was keeping bad company, especially with people from the police and the drugs squad". Lira Bayseitova suspected that drug police had approached her daughter with the aim of implicating her in a drug scandal, as has already happened with several opposition personalities or people close to them. Her daughter maintained that there was nothing unhealthy in these relations and that, on the country, they could open up career prospects for her. "Look where your activity as a government opponent has led you", she retorted. "You have no work and I wouldn’t be able to find any, either". On 23 May, Lira withdrew to her country house in Razdolnoye, about 25 km from Almaty, leaving Leila alone in the apartment to prepare for her university exams.
The last family member to see Leila alive was a cousin, Rima Duskayeva, 22, who stayed in the Bayseitova apartment while passing through Almaty. She testified for the first time since Leila’s death to the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles investigator : "Leila returned to the apartment on the evening of 15 June. We chatted a bit, she asked for news of her mother, then she took a bath and went to bed. She was completely normal. The next morning she left early. I just remember hearing her voice, when she asked me to lock the door behind her".
Leila’s death as reported by the family
At around 5 pm on 16 June, another cousin of Lira’s, Gulnara Shtogrina, called Lira on her mobile telephone to tell her that her daughter had been arrested by police and was being held for "possession of drugs". When she received this call, Leila’s mother was still in her country house at Razdolnoye, in the company of relatives and friends from the provinces.
Gulnara, aged 25 and the mother of a very young child, had been reached by telephone at her home at around 4 pm by Leila, who was then in the office of an inspector of the police station at Medeu (Medeuskoye RUVD), located at 47 Zenkova Street, Almaty. So Gulnara is the last family member to talk to Leila before her death. She also agreed to testify for the first time since the incident to the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles investigator. "When I picked up the phone, a man who introduced himself as Inspector Ibraev asked me if I had any family ties with a certain Leila Bayseitova", she recalled. "Then, he told me she had been detained for possession of a large quantity of drugs and he quoted the article of the law this crime comes under". Gulnara thinks the police tried to reach Leila’s mother first but her phone was switched to GSM coverage, so they turned to her instead. "Finally, he put Leila on. In a calm voice, she said she had been arrested and asked me to bring her warm clothes. ’Call mother, but don’t worry, it’s not serious, she said".
Gulnara said she noted nothing unusual about Leila’s voice. Leila also told her that she would not be staying long at the police station, "half an hour or an hour at the most", before being transferred elsewhere (in fact, to a provisional detention centre). The conversation lasted just a few minutes. An hour later, the police inspector called to tell her that a message had been passed to Lira Bayseitova. He called again at 7 pm, this time to ask for a telephone number where Lira could be reached urgently.
In fact, Lira Bayseitova did not receive a call from the police until very late in the night of 16 to 17 June. "A man identifying himself as Inspector Ibraev told me that Leila had been arrested in possession of 1.6 grams of heroin", she recalled. "He also said that, as my daughter was suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms, she had been taken to hospital, to a cardiac intensive care unit. I remember asking him why not to a unit specialized in toxicology. He replied that it was the doctors, not them, who decided."
Lira was bewildered. "I was convinced that it was a provocation, an attempt to implicate me in something". Furthermore, she did not believe the official version for one moment, and was reluctant to go to the police station. "I didn’t know what to do. I thought they were going to blackmail me. I even thought of finding a lawyer before going to see them".
According to Lira, Inspector Ibraev called her again at around 7 am on 17 June. "Your daughter is still in intensive care, but you should be aware that as soon as her condition allows it, she will be brought back to the police station to finish the investigation." He then added, "Leila tried to hang herself with her jeans". Lira asked, "At the police station or the hospital ?" The police inspector did not give a specific answer.
Lira Bayseitova then tried several times to reach the doctor in charge of the emergency department, Armantay Birtanov, but without success. "We have known each other for more than 20 years but, nonetheless, I suspect he tried to avoid me". She also tried to get more information on her daughter’s condition from the emergency department. But as visitors were not allowed into the intensive care unit, she just spoke to the receptionist and gave telephone numbers where she could be reached. She visited her daughter on 20 June. The head of the cardiac intensive care unit, a Dr. Lapine, escorted her to her daughter’s bed and held her arm firmly all the time. "There’s not much to see, you know". Leila was unconscious, covered by a sheet, on a drip, and breathing irregularly. "There were two tubes coming out of her nose. Her mouth and eyes were covered with thick dressings. I wanted to touch her and talk to her, but the doctor prevented me", she said. He told her, "Prepare yourself, she won’t survive until tomorrow".
Back in his office, Dr. Lapine consulted the patient’s file. "No traces of toxic products, drugs or alcohol in Leila’s blood at the time of admission", he reportedly said. "She arrived in an advanced state of asphyxia. I was told she tried to hang herself but you will have to get the details from the police station". Lira asked if she had been raped. "We didn’t find any traces of sperm", the doctor replied.
Leila died in the intensive care unit on the morning of 21 June. Despite stifling heat of more than 35 Centigrade, her body was not taken to the morgue until late in the evening. It was handed over to the family early the next morning. The forensic doctor on duty had carried out a rapid autopsy and then embalmed the body. That night, the women charged with washing the body in Lira Bayseitova’s country home found bruises and other lesions which they interpreted as the signs of violence, so Lira had a journalist come and take photographs of the body. Leila was buried on 23 June according to Muslim rite in a country cemetery near the village of Razdolnoye.
The initial explanations offered by the authorities
Still under the shock of her daughter’s death, Lira Bayseitova was hard put to reconstruct the sequence of events that followed. She nonetheless remembered having been contacted several times by a Victor Kostenko, the No. 2 in the Medeu police station who was in charge of the internal investigation into her daughter’s death. He invited her to come to the police station, but Lira refused, paralysed by fear, and started to look for a lawyer. Kostenko then paid her a visit and gave her a jumble of facts about her daughter’s death : arrested and taken to the district police station by the drugs squad, she hanged herself with her jeans while locked up alone in a cell ; heroin addict for at least a year (all her veins were a mess, he said), she committed suicide under the effect of withdrawal ; she wasn’t wearing underwear at the time of her arrest ; she was not subjected to any mistreatment. Lira gave no credence to these claims and limited herself to showing Kostenko copies of the sequence of photos of Leila taken after her death. "The police officer immediately got up and left, taking the photographs with him." She believes it was these photographs that led to the opening of a judicial enquiry into her daughter’s death.
Lira Bayseitova agreed to go to the police station for a second meeting with Kostenko on 1 July, accompanied by her lawyer, Dosan Nurumbetov. Kostenko told her that an enquiry had been opened into the possibility of "incitement to suicide" (article 102 of the country’s penal code) and briefly showed her a confession signed by Leila. She had admitted "finding" a small packet of heroin which she had kept for her "personal consumption" and she admitted having taken drugs "since the beginning of 2001". She had signed under the standard phrase : "During my interrogation I was not subjected to pressure or any mistreatment". Lira was immediately struck by how shaky and crooked the signature was, and she insisted that pages from her daughter’s personal diary, with their careful, well-rounded handwriting, be added to the file.
During the same visit, Lira Bayseitova met Inspector Ibraev who, much to her surprise, denied having spoken to her by telephone. "I believed him, because this man only spoke Kazakh while the person I had previously talked to was a Russian-speaker". Both languages are spoken in Kazakhstan, with Russian serving as lingua franca among the various minorities living in the country. So who called Lira to give her the initial information about her daughter’s arrest ? She thinks it was members of the drugs squad, "to clear themselves of responsibility and to mislead me about the true nature of my daughter’s physical condition".
Case virtually closed
On 12 July, the date of the arrival of the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles investigator in Almaty, the preliminary enquiry had made little progress. No family member or friend of Leila had been contacted by police or the prosecutor’s office. The autopsy report had not been published and it was not known if a forensic medical report had been ordered. Aside from a few details communicated orally, Lira Bayseitova had received no information or official document from any relevant authority about the case. The press, for the most part controlled by the authorities, had published no more than a few lines reporting Leila’s death. Human rights defenders, journalists and diplomats based in Almaty had barely heard any discussion of the case.
While trying to obtain as many testimonies as possible from Leila’s relatives and friends, the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative addressed requests for information about Leila Bayseitova’s death to many senior officials, beginning on the first day that offices were open, namely 15 July. In particular he sent letters - by hand and with receipt acknowledgments - to Kalmukhambet Kassymov, head of the office of the Ministry of Interior (police) in the city of Almaty ; to Colonel Viktor Ermak, head of the Anti-Narcotics Section (drugs squad) ; to Nurlybek Agibaev, head of the Medeu district police station ; to Kozbassar Nurbekov, head of the Almaty office of the National Security Committee (KNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB) ; to Satybek Ongarbaev, Almaty public prosecutor ; and to Amantay Birtanov, the doctor in charge of the city’s medical emergency services.
Of all these senior officials, the doctor in charge of the city’s medical emergency services was the only one to categorically refuse to give any information. He said he had "nothing to say" and maintained that this case "in no way concerns" the emergency department where Leila died. Of all the offices approached for information, only one, the public prosecutor’s office, gave a written response, which was handed to the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative during a brief interview on 22 July. Until n ow, it is the only official document presenting the version of the authorities in this case.
According to this document - jointly signed by the prosecutor’s first deputy, B. Mamytov, and the judge in charge of the case, D. Baymagambetov - Leila was arrested "at 12:50 pm at the entrance of No. 4 of a building at 25 Pushkin Street by officers of the Medeu district police station". Without offering resistence, she allegedly surrendered a "small packet hidden under the belt of her jeans containing a beige-coloured powder". According to technical report No. 9837 of the same day, the powder was "a narcotic substance, namely heroin, weighing 1.58 grams". After specifying the articles of the law justifying the opening of an enquiry (article 259 of the penal code) and Leila’s arrest (article 132), the document details the subsequent sequence of events : "At 5 pm, Leila Bayseitova was taken to a detention cell in the Medeu police station where she tried to take her own life by hanging herself with the aid of her jeans. A unit of the emergency medical service took her to the city’s emergency department, where she was admitted with cerebral oedema due to an interrupted mechanical asphyxia. Without ever having recovered consciousness, she died in the emergency department on 21 June".
The document also mentioned that an enquiry had been opened into possible "incitement to suicide" and referred to a forensic evaluation of the causes of death. This enquiry was being conducted "under the direct control of the city’s prosecutor", which seems to have been the direct result of the intervention of the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles mission to Almaty.
After acknowledging receipt of the request for information by Reporters Without Borders/Damocles, the Almaty chief of police apparently assigned Victor Kostenko, the No. 2 in the Medeu police station, the task of contacting the investigator. Thus, it was this official who explained the position of the police authorities, as he had already to Lira Bayseitova. Like all of the official spokespersons in this case, he insisted on the fact that Leila consumed hard drugs. "She was a heroin addict who took the stuff intravenously. For two months she had rented an apartment near the Green Market (Zeliony Bazar) where she spent her time shooting up with others like her. One of her female friends had already been convicted twice for possession of drugs. That’s how our colleagues in the drugs squad were able to identify her and arrest her".
Kostenko summarized what happened at the police station in few words : "At 5 pm, the inspector who had conducted the interrogation took Leila to an empty cell. Left alone, she hanged herself with her jeans". Initially, Kostenko had told Lira that her daughter hanged herself "from a radiator". But, in the interview with the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative, he said she had used "the grating over the small space above the door that houses the cell’s light bulb". He said "she fed one of the legs of her jeans through this, and then made a knot with the other leg in order to hang herself". According to Kostenko, police officers had subsequently examined the cell and their observations were "recorded in the report". He did not know why Leila would have committed suicide, recalling that the interrogation proceeded calmly and smoothly from start to finish. "She behaved normally, she was completely calm". Kostenko, who was in charge of the internal investigation into the incident, said that three of the station’s police officers including the duty officer had already received sanctions (official warnings) for lack of vigilance.
At the city prosecutor’s office, it is Judge Baymagambetov assisted by investigator Jan Denisov who is in charge of the enquiry into Leila Bayseitova’s death. When the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative was able to interview them, they at first argued that confidentiality precluded any discussion of an investigation still under way. "We have to obtain several testimonies in the course of an investigation. It is supposed to last two months, but it could stretch out to twelve", Denisov said. Shortly before leaving Almaty, the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative was briefly received by Judge Baymagambetov who gave the prosecutor’s response, once again stressing the suicide hypothesis. "This was a junky who committed suicide while in detention. The few police officers found guilty of negligence have already been sanctioned." A preliminary enquiry is nonetheless under way, conducted by this very same judge...
Testimony of a drugs squad officer
The Reporters Without Borders/Damocles investigator addressed a request for information to Colonel Viktor Ermak, head of the city’s Anti-Narcotics Section, which is attached to the Ministry of Interior. But it was a young officer, Captain Djomart Jar Mogambetov, who met with the investigator to give his version of events. "I knew this young woman very well", he said by telephone. "I personally led her arrest operation".
With the consent of his superiors - and perhaps at their behest - Captain Mogambetov gave the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative an extensive interview after showing his police ID. Tense and apparently upset, he immediately said he regretted Leila’s death. "She was an intelligent and cultured girl. If I had known how things would end up, I would have let her go".
"But she was a drug addict, a junky (narkomanka)" he said. "She took heroin intravenously, in the forearms or the shoulders, in large quantities. We’d had our eye on her for several months, as well as her unemployed, druggy friends. She had been squatting for the previous few weeks in several apartments. At least two of her friends were also heroin addicts. What’s more, a week after we detained her, we arrested one of her women friends in exactly the same circumstances".
According to Captain Mogambetov, Leila often served as intermediary between her friends and heroin dealers. He described the circumstances of her arrest as follows : "She was going to the home of a woman friend when we stopped her. She admitted being in possession of drugs and immediately pulled out a small packet hidden under her belt. Everything proceeded without friction on either side. She was calm, but nonetheless refused to reveal who she had bought the heroin from. We then asked two passers-by to serve as witnesses and took them with Leila to the Medeu police station to get a statement".
When they had arrived at the police station, Leila said she was the daughter of Lira Bayseitova. "I knew who this woman was, obviously, because I take an interest in politics, but I hadn’t known until that moment that the person we had arrested was her daughter".
The drug squad officers waited in the corridor until the witnesses had given their statement and then took them home. "At that point, our job was over", Mogambetov said. Meanwhile, "the officers at the police station had the right to hold her for three to ten days". The next day, when he learned what had happened subsequently, he said he was shocked. "I immediately ran over the events of the previous day in my mind to see if we had done everything by the book". When he gave his version of events to the prosecutor, he was told what had happened next. "She did indeed hang herself with her jeans because she was suffering from withdrawal", he said, recalling that she had several times asked them for "a dose" with which to inject herself.
A critical look at the official version
It is clear from all the official testimonies that the authorities have constructed their explanations and defence on the basis of a single pillar : that Leila was a "junky". In their eyes, this justified her arrest and, to a large extent, explains her suicide. Unable to withstand her withdrawal symptoms, her "cold turkey", the young woman supposedly cut short her suffering by taking her life. But we wanted to compare and complete the testimonies of the authorities before returning to this issue, in which we sought the views of those close to her and several experts in forensic medicine and toxicology.
The time, the grating, the jeans
While the precise time of Leila’s arrest is given in the prosecutor’s letter to Reporters Without Borders/Damocles - 12:50 pm - the time of her arrival at the Medeu police station varies : 2 pm, according to Victor Kostenko ; "in the afternoon", according to Captain Mogambetov ; and not specified by the prosecutor. On other hand, everyone agrees on the time at which she was put in a cell : 5 pm. So how long did her interrogation last ? Under what circumstances did it take place ? How much time did Leila spend altogether in the police station ?
According to Lira Bayseitova’s lawyer, the only one so far to have been able to briefly leaf through the prosecutor’s case file, the emergency medical service ambulance was called at 5:20 pm although it did not arrive until 6:20 pm. Leila therefore supposedly hanged herself between 5 pm and 5:20 pm. According to the testimony of one of the police officers, she must have remained hanging from her jeans for three minutes before being discovered.
How can one hang oneself in a police station cell ? The authorities said Leila was given a cell for herself because she was a woman. According to the information first given to her mother, she supposedly hanged herself with her jeans from a radiator installed near the ceiling. The authorities then seem to have abandoned this hypothesis because, in all the explanations given to the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative, she hanged herself from a "small grating" over the recess housing the cell’slightbulb. This version also lends itself to doubt, as it is hard to imagine how one could loop a jeans leg through a grating and then make a tight enough knot. It is even harder to imagine how this grating could have supported Leila’s weight (she weighed 135 lbs and was 5’ 8" tall, according to her mother). As of 31 July, neither the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative nor Leila’s mother nor her lawyer has been able to see the cell where she hanged herself not the grating in question. A careful examination by the defence and a reconstruction of the incident are essential.
While committing suicide in this manner might seem very unusual, a French forensic specialist, Jean Rivolet, did not think it was unprecedented. "In 20 years of forensic practice, I have encountered a few cases of detainees using jeans or some other garment to hang themselves", he said. In this case, the problem with the brown, Italian-brand jeans supposedly used by Leila to hang herself, which constitute one of the most important pieces of evidence, is what happened to them afterwards. According to the testimony of the emergency services doctor who was the first to treat Leila, while she was still in the police station, he found "a young woman, unconscious, lying on a bench, wearing brown jeans and a light-coloured top". The doctors in the emergency department also recalled a young woman in jeans. Would the police officers, on their own initiative, have put the jeans back on a dying woman after she had used them to hang herself ? In any case, after Leila’s admission to the emergency department, all trace of the jeans was lost. "Yes, her jeans seem to have disappeared", Victor Kostenko acknowledged. He claimed that a nurse had given the jeans to the family, but Lira Bayseitova flatly denied this. "This is all I’ve been asking from the outset, that they produce these jeans and show me how you could hang yourself with them".
According to all the testimonies obtained from police and judicial officials, Leila had been a drug addict for some time and was suffering acute withdrawal symptoms (lomka, in Russian) soon after her arrest, during the interrogation, and while detained in the police station cell. "She asked us for heroin to shoot up", the police said. If this is the case, then one fact is clear : at no point was she offered a sedative or heroin substitute such as Subutex. Unconcerned about the contradiction, all of the police authorities interviewed by the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative nonetheless maintained that the arrest, interrogation, confession and signing of the statement all unfolded without incident and that Leila was cooperative, calm and "normal". Was she suffering withdrawal symptoms or not ? And if she was, does the confession she signed in this state have any juridical validity ?
The Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative thought it would be useful to appeal to the experience of the drugs squad captain interviewed in Almaty. So how do heroin addicts usually behave when they are suffering withdrawal symptoms ? "It’s sad to see", he said. "Some cry, some drool or their nose runs... Some have convulsions and collapse to the ground". None of this seems to have happened in Leila’s case. "No, but she could have been suffering considerable inner torment", Captain Mogambetov said.
In his work as a forensic specialist, Dr. Rivolet never dealt with a case of a heroin addict hanging himself while suffering withdrawal symptoms. "When they are in that state, they may mutilate themselves or become aggressive. It’s above all LSD and Ecstasy users who may have suicidal tendencies in such cases".
Odile Diamant-Berger, a forensic doctor and specialist in toxicology, likens the condition of drug withdrawal to a form of trance, with moments of extreme excitation alternating with moments of utter despondency. The condition may be accompanied by abdominal pains and violent catarrh which doctors treat with various sedatives or antispasmodics.
It should be recalled that Leila was seen by one of her cousins, Rima, on the evening prior to her arrest. Rima spent the night in the same apartment as Leila and heard her leave early the next morning. She noted nothing unusual in her words or behaviour. Similarly, Gulnara Shtogrina said there was nothing remarkable about Leila’s voice when she took a call from her at around 4 pm, when Leila was in the police station : "a normal, calm voice, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening". These testimonies are complemented by the results of the blood test taken at the time of her admission to the emergency department, which show no toxic products. The results of the urine test (which, according to experts, would be much more conclusive as regards the presence, or not, of drugs) have not so far been released.
Versions and hypotheses about Leila and drugs
In Kazakhstan, two departments share the task of combatting drug trafficking : the Ministry of Interior’s drugs squad and the secret service (the KNB). The head of the KNB, General Nurbekov, was willing to receive the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative but stressed from the outset that the KNB had no connection with the Leila Bayseitova case : "no surveillance, no operational work involving her". His agency only watched the frontiers and inflows from neighbouring countries, Kazakhstan being a transit country for heroin moving from Afghanistan and Tajikistan toward Russia and then Europe. It is the drugs squad’s task to combat those who receive and sell drugs within Kazakhstan (where one gram of heroin sells for US$20 in Almaty). Captain Mogambetov confirmed that "wholesalers" constitute the main target of the drug squad, which receives UN financing and assistance from foreign experts, mainly US ones. "But from time to time, we also carry out a bit of a crackdown on local consumers". Leila’s case apparently fell into this category.
In the course of his investigation in Almaty, the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative tried to establish from Leila’s family and friends whether she took drugs, which ones, and since when. The degree of nuance in the response seemed to vary according to whether or not the person was a family member. Nonetheless, both relatives and friends said the young woman had never attempted suicide in the past and had never displayed any suicidal tendencies. "Full of energy, ambitious and cheerful", was how they described her.
According to her mother, who had lived intermittently with her for the past five years, Leila had never taken hard drugs and showed none of the characteristics of a junky. "If she had money, she would rather buy fashionable clothes or beauty products". An observation shared by both friends and neighbours such as Gana, a young jurist who lived on the same floor : "An extravagant girl, who followed the latest fashions and was always dressed up to the nines". In family photo albums and video footage, the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles representative found a young woman of an often provocative appearance, but always with a smile and a happy, vibrant air about her. And with no visible needle marks. The news of her suicide and the junky accusation were a real shock for all her family members, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Their failure to understand Leila’s supposed suicide is shared by all of the young woman’s friends that Reporters Without Borders/Damocles was able to meet in Almaty. On the other hand, some of her friends mentioned their suspicions about drug consumption and, above all, the company Leila was keeping with people linked with this milieu, including members of the drug squad. "She had friends in this milieu", said a 23-year-old woman who had known her since they were adolescents and who requested anonymity. "In particular, someone called Nea, a real junky, who had always been suspected of being a police informer. I know Leila had heroin and that she was probably sniffing it, but I never saw her shooting up. Her having drugs and taking them was the reason why we fell out more than a year ago".
She explained that she and Leila used to share an apartment that was searched in 1999 by members of the drugs squad, who found heroin belonging to Leila or Nea. Leila was briefly taken away for questioning. When she returned an hour later, Leila said she had "sorted out the problem" with the police. At that time, some of her friends thought that she, too, had struck a bargain with the police. This concern was shared by Lira Bayseitova who had been alerted by colleagues that Leila had been associating with young men in the drugs squad for about a year. She thought they had approached her daughter with the sole aim of one day being able to compromise her, Lira, the newspaper editor and opposition activist. Leila’s friends, on the other hand, thought that Leila was genuinely interested in the possibility of working with members of the drugs squad and even, eventually, in a "career" in the Ministry of Interior.
Either way, many testimonies spoke of a change in Leila that had occurred more than a year ago, a change in personality and in the company she kept. She seems to have distanced herself from her old friends and to have hidden everything about her new life from her mother, with whom she nonetheless had strong ties. "She probably wanted to prove something to me, but I was very afraid that she might too easily place her trust in anyone", Lira said. Leila’s ex-husband, who also asked not to be cited in this report, had long suspected that she was taking drugs during this final period. So much so that, when they would met, he used to examine her "millimetre by millimetre" for needle marks, without ever finding any.
Lira Bayseitova was able to examine her daughter’s body late on the night of 22 to 23 June, shortly before she was buried. She found what she believes to have been traces of violence or injuries received prior to death : a haematoma behind the ear, scratches on the soles of the feet, a broken phalanx bone, bruising of varying degrees of severity. Her daughter’s genitals appeared to have been badly bruised, as had the inside of her thighs, leading her to suspect her daughter was raped. This suspicion is supported by the fact that her underwear has never been found (although Victor Kostenko claimed she was not wearing any).
The Reporters Without Borders/Damocles investigator was able to interview one of the women who washed the body, Galina Yakovlevna, 52, a distant relative of the deceased. She confirmed the presence of a number of suspicious marks on her body, bruises that appeared to have been left by fingers, especially on the inside of thighs, and the bruised appearance of the genitals. "When we turned the body over, she bled from the genitals, a bright red blood". She also said the soles of her feet were scratched and coated with a green-coloured disinfectant, "as if she had been dragged along the ground". Her feet and hands were very dirty and the toes seemed dislocated or stretched. She also noted a haematoma behind the right ear and an "enormous bruise" on the neck...
A photographer summoned by Lira Bayseitova during the night tried to get some of these elements on film. A woman friend and journalist also took some shots the following morning. All of these photographs have been added to the case file and been given to the French forensic expert Jean Rivolet for his comments.
All of the police and judicial authorities in Almaty categorically denied any possibility that Leila might have been subjected to mistreatment while in detention. Kazakh human rights defenders nonetheless maintain that mistreatment of detainees by police is very common, especially in the district police stations.
Autopsy and forensic report
An autopsy was carried out on Leila’s body on 22 June at the Almaty morgue. According to family members questioned by the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles investigator, the autopsy lasted "no more than 45 minutes" between 8 am and 9 am, and was carried out by just one forensic doctor. Although the authorities gave the family an undertaking to release the results of the autopsy report on 12 July, they were not released until 5 August. The French forensic expert Jean Rivolet analyzed them.
While accepting that the report’s findings are "compatible with hanging with the aid of a fairly broad bond", Rivolet stressed that several elements have not been clarified. He pointed out the absence of findings concerning the presence or not of toxic or psychotropic substances in the urine or blood, and the failure to effect punctures or incisions in the integuments and muscles which could have revealed traces of deep haematomas. According to Rivolet, the fact that the hyoid bone, at the front of the neck, was described as being intact rules out any possibility of manual strangulation. However, on the basis of the clinical data, Rivolet was adamant that the duration of the hanging must have been "not less than ten minutes" (whereas the report said three minutes). He was also surprised that such a short autopsy (45 minutes, or not more than half an hour after subtracting the time taken to sow up the incisions at the end) could resulted in such a detailed report. According to Rivolet, a complete autopsy, ordered as part of a forensic specialist report, lasts "several hours" and is carried out by several forensic doctors, especially when a police foul-up or murder is suspected.
The Kazakh forensic doctor’s findings confirmed the presence of traces of minor violence : haematomas and ecchymoses "which would have caused minor damage to Ms. Bayseitova’s health." However, their origin was not explained. The autopsy also offered no evidence as to whether the deceased had been taking drugs or other toxic products and did not seem to have considered the possibility of rape (no vaginal examination).
Questioning the veracity of the autopsy report, the victim’s family has already requested that the body be exhumed and an independent expert examination be carried out in the presence of foreign forensic doctors.
Conclusions and recommendations
Like other Kazakh human rights defenders and journalists, Evgenyi Jovtis of the Bureau for Human Rights in Almaty considers that the official explanations about Leila Bayseitova’s death "raise more questions than provide answers". Leila’s mother does not believe "a single word" of the autopsy report and has requested the support of Reporters Without Borders/ Damocles for the commissioning of an independent expert report on the causes of her daughter’s death. "The doctors are civil servants in our country, just like the police," said opposition journalist Sergey Duvanov. "It is entirely possible that the autopsy report was dictated by the authorities."
Furthermore, Leila Bayseitova’s death has come at time of growing, increasingly violent repression against the critical news media and opposition leaders in general. "If it is proved that Leila’s death was part of an attempt to undermine her mother, then we are witnessing a turning point in the regime’s repression", said Nurbulat Massanov, a widely respected political scientist and joint president of Kazakhstan’s Democratic Forces Forum. "It would show that the regime no longer attacks us personally, but makes our children pay the price of our political activity".
At this stage in the explanations provided by the police and judiciary, Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network considers the version maintained by the authorities to be riddled with discrepancies and not very convincing. Therefore, the two organisations ask the relevant authorities in Almaty :
To give Leila Bayseitova’s hospitalisation case file to an independent forensic doctor ;
To order a new forensic expert examination to be conducted in the presence of foreign forensic doctors ;
To accurately establish, by means of additional analyses, Leila Bayseitova’s state of health during her detention ;
To carry out a reconstruction of what happened in the cell where she supposedly hanged herself ;
To accurately establish the events that took place at the time of her detention and interrogation ;
To give a credible explanation for the contradictions in the official testimonies pointed out in this report.
At a press conference held in Kazakhstan on 23 July by the representative of Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network, the two organisations undertook to continue following this case closely. In accordance with the wishes of the civil party in this case, they in particular proposed the help of independent experts in forensic medicine and toxicology for a possible second opinion or a new autopsy following exhumation of the body.
Download the report (.pdf, about 200 Kb)