Last Updated: Tuesday, 01 December 2015, 13:36 GMT

French researcher's murder focuses attention on crime conditions in Kazakhstan

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Joanna Lillis
Publication Date 15 August 2006
Cite as EurasiaNet, French researcher's murder focuses attention on crime conditions in Kazakhstan, 15 August 2006, available at: [accessed 2 December 2015]
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Joanna Lillis 8/15/06

The violent death of a French researcher in Kazakhstan's commercial capital in early August has focused an international spotlight on the crime situation in the Central Asian nation.

Gregoire de Bourgues, a freelancer for a Greece-based communications firm, was found dead in his rented apartment in central Almaty on August 2. "The corpse of a citizen of France, Gregoire de Bourgues, born 1981, was found in Almaty's Almalinskiy district on August 2 in an apartment in a block on Shevchenko St," an Almaty police department news release said. "According to preliminary information, the victim's death was the result of several knife wounds. The Almaty police department has opened a criminal case into this matter."

De Bourgues had been in Kazakhstan for several months performing economic research. As details of the killing emerged, some observers voiced concern that the circumstances suggested more than a casual attack. De Bourgues was attacked at his home by three men, two of them masked. His interpreter was also present and survived the incident. Reports suggested that de Bourgues had been subjected to considerable violence before being killed.

The murder was carried out with "particular cruelty", reported Adil Soz, an NGO promoting freedom of speech in Kazakhstan. "Traces of torture and multiple knife and rubber bullet wounds were found on the body, his face was battered and there were rope burns on his neck, arms and legs," it said, citing police sources.

Given frequent controversy over press freedom in Kazakhstan, questions inevitably arose about possible links between de Bourgues' killing and his research. The government moved to dispel rumors. "The tragic incident was in no way linked to the journalist's professional activity," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov told a briefing in Astana on August 7 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstan Today agency.

Adil Soz director Tamara Kaleyeva echoed that opinion. "We are inclined to believe that this murder was not linked to his professional activity," she told EurasiaNet. "There is a very acute crime situation in Almaty, with lots of murders and robberies; foreigners are particularly high-risk."

One theory the police are pursuing is that the motive was robbery. International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said a computer, digital camera, mobile phone and a large sum of money were stolen. Conflicting reports, however, suggested that de Bourgues had little money at home.

The director of Kazakhstan's Journalists in Danger foundation, Rozlana Taukina, remains unconvinced that the root cause of de Bourgues' death was robbery. Citing a conversation with a source familiar with de Bourgues' activities, Taukina suggested that the French researcher had perhaps uncovered potentially explosive information concerning the deaths of two prominent Kazakhstani politicians, Zamanbek Nurkadilov and Altynbek Sarsenbayev.

Nurkadilov, a former minister, mayor of Almaty and regional governor who had joined the opposition, was found dead of gunshot wounds at his home in November 2005; the official cause of death was suicide, but doubts persist in Kazakhstani political circles about whether Nurkadilov was murdered. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Sarsenbayev, another former minister who had joined the opposition, was shot dead in February in an execution-style killing; 10 people are currently standing trial for his murder. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Taukina says the source, who knew de Bourgues, told her that "on July 30 he met someone – I cannot so far establish who – who gave him a small dossier on the killings of [these] political figures."

"My theory is that it [the murder] could be linked to his professional activity, because he was in possession of certain information," Taukina said. The information could have been destined for publication abroad, she suggested. However, it is not clear why de Bourgues would have been singled out as the recipient for such information, over journalists working for outlets better placed to break such news.

De Bourgues worked on a contract basis for SML Strategic Media, a communications firm based in Athens, Greece. His assignment in Almaty involved preparing a two-part advertising insert highlighting Kazakhstan's economic growth and investment potential. The first installment of the "advertorial" appears in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs, according to the journal's publisher David Kellogg. Foreign Affairs, published by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, had no role in the preparation of the insert's content.

There is no tangible evidence that de Bourgues had been researching controversial material. "He was not seeking out compromising material ... there were no grounds [for murder]," said Kaleyeva, the Adil Soz director.

International media organizations have taken an interest in the case. RSF declared itself "very shocked" by the murder and urged an all-out investigation. "We urge the authorities to do all they can to solve this murder and we hope the French government will follow the investigation very closely," it said. The French embassy declines to comment on the murder.

Whether or not the case proves to have a media link, it has helped focus attention on Kazakhstan's media environment, especially recent changes to media legislation. Organizations including the OSCE, Freedom House and the International Press Institute have criticized the changes, which became law in early July.

Elements of the bill which have been singled out for criticism include a tighter registration process for media outlets, a new registration fee, the need for outlets to re-register if they change details such as their address, and rules temporarily preventing editors of outlets that are closed down by the courts from working as editors at other outlets.

Kazakhstan's media minister, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, has characterized the vigorous debate over the amendments as natural for a democratic society. He maintained that the changes were a question of national security and did not infringe freedom of speech. "Questions of state regulation of the media are closely linked to national security," he told the upper house of parliament in June.

When a media environment is marked by controversy, the death of a journalist becomes highly-charged. Some observers still characterize the death in 2004 of reporter Askhat Sharipzhanov, who worked for the opposition Navigator website, as suspicious, despite the official finding of accidental death. It was perhaps inevitable then that de Bourgues' murder would raise questions. However, as the investigation runs its course, there is little in the way of convincing evidence in the public domain to indicate that his killing was connected to his research.

Editor's Note: Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.

Posted August 15, 2006 © Eurasianet

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