Asia

Epic murder trial tests Austrian justice

Tight security and intense media interest marked the start of Austria's 'trial of the year' Image copyright NASA
Image caption Tight security and intense media interest marked the start of Austria's 'trial of the year'

After a three-month trial, an Austrian jury has found two Kazakh men not guilty of involvement in a brutal double murder committed thousands of miles away.

Alnur Mussayev, a former Kazakh intelligence chief was cleared of all charges. Vadim Koshlyak, a former security adviser, received a two-year sentence for deprivation of liberty, but was cleared of murder.

The verdict concludes one of the most complex and unusual court proceedings Austria has seen.

The case has also raised questions over whether the Kazakh secret service tried to manipulate the judicial process.

When proceedings at the Vienna Regional Court got under way in mid-April amid heavy security, the media had already dubbed it "the trial of the year".

At its heart: the brutal killing of two managers of the Kazakh Nurbank, whose bodies where found four years ago.

Evidence presented in court suggested that the victims, Zholdas Timraliyev and Aybar Khasenov, had been drugged, tortured and strangled before being buried in metal barrels on wasteland near the Kazakh commercial hub of Almaty in early 2007.

'Forced confessions'

The investigation had centred mainly on one man, Rakhat Aliyev, once part of the innermost circle of the Kazakh elite, a former deputy of both the intelligence service and the foreign ministry.

He was a wealthy businessman, and as son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, he was close to the oil-rich Central Asian country's authoritarian leader - until the two men fell out in 2007.

Aliyev was also the main share holder in Nurbank.

Vienna prosecutors alleged that he kidnapped the murder victims to confront them over illicit loans, that he repeatedly tortured them and forced them to confess and sign over shares and property before they were killed.

The men now cleared in the Vienna trial were accused of assisting Aliyev.

Aliyev himself never appeared in court.

Two months before the trial, on February 24 he was found hanged in his Vienna prison cell.


Rakhat Aliyev

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rakhat Aliyev, seen in an undated photo, was a former son-in-law of President Nazarbayev
  • 1980s: Medical training; marries Darigha Nazarbayeva, elder daughter of future President of Kazakhstan
  • 1990s: Various business ventures; head of Kazakh financial police; becomes deputy head of Kazakh spy agency, KNB
  • 2002: Sent to Vienna as Kazakh ambassador; returns to become deputy Foreign Minister in 2005
  • 2007: Sent to Vienna once again after disappearance of Nurbank managers; fired in May and divorced from Darigha in June
  • 2008: charged and convicted in absentia to 40 years in jail and hard labour for mafia activities and attempted coup

Austria was legally bound to investigate the case after refusing extradition requests from Kazakhstan, citing the country's poor human rights record.

After being fired as ambassador in Vienna, Aliyev had stayed in Austria, evading the Kazakh authorities who convicted him in absentia for a variety of crimes, including plotting a coup.

Vienna prosecutors started to investigate in 2011, ultimately leading to the arrest of Aliyev and his associates and formal charges last year.

'Tale of lies'

When lead prosecutor Bettina Wallner presented the case in court, she said the alleged events sounded "like the plot of a Hollywood film". The motive, she said, was money.

Defence lawyers argued throughout that the charges amounted to a "tale of lies" constructed by the Kazakh secret service and designed to persecute opposition figures who had fallen foul of the regime.

Over three months the jury of eight men and women listened to over 60 witnesses, more than half of whom had been flown in from Kazakhstan and spoke only Russian. A team of translators was hired to assist.

Also present were several of Vienna's most prominent law firms.

Even though the main suspect was dead, many of the proceedings were dominated by Aliyev, with witnesses describing a man of immense power and influence.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Alnur Mussayev (right) , the former head of the Kazakh secret service and Vadim Koshlyak, at the start of their trial

Throughout the trial there were extraordinary scenes.

After six days of testimony, the judge, Andreas Boehm, surprised everyone by freeing the suspects from custody, citing contradictory information from Kazakhstan and in some of the evidence provided by witnesses.

The prosecution and lawyers for the victims' families protested. A month later Mr Mussayev and Koshlyak were back in handcuffs after Judge Boehm was overruled by a higher court.

Two weeks later the prosecution supported a formal application to remove Judge Boehm from the case altogether.

The lawyer for the father of one of the victims demanded the trial should be filmed to document the judge's facial expressions and body language, which he said proved his lack of impartiality.

The defence focused on the role of the victims' association, Tagdyr, which was founded by the widows of the murdered bankers and which spent millions on bringing the Aliyev trial to court.

The widows' lawyer rejected accusations that Tagdyr was a front for the Kazakh secret service, saying it was financed by surviving relatives of the victims and their supporters.

Image copyright David Lublin
Image caption An advert for Kazakhstan's Nurbank on a building in Almaty

But the Aliyev case also sparked a much wider debate about whether Austrian justice and institutions were in danger of being manipulated by Kazakhstan.

As far back as 2009, a parliamentary inquiry reported that politicians had been "unknowingly instrumentalised" by the Kazakh secret service to manipulate public opinion in the interests of the Kazakh government.

There have been persistent accusations that lawyers, officials and politicians have lobbied on behalf of the Kazakh authorities in the Aliyev case.

Austrian and German media have raised questions over the role of the so-called Independent International Advisory Council, whose members advise Kazakh President Nazarbayev and include the former Austrian chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, along with other leading European ex-politicians.

Mr Gusenbauer has issued a statement saying that the Aliyev case had never been discussed by the IIAC, and that members had at no time tried to influence the judicial proceedings.

"The IIAC advises the government and the President of Kazakhstan in questions of international politics and the economy," the statement said.

Questions remain

At the end of a 30-day marathon trial many questions remain unanswered.

Investigations are continuing into alleged espionage on behalf of Kazakhstan.

There has also been a fresh extradition request for Mr Mussayev in another murder case, which some fear could lead to yet another trial on Austrian soil.

And the lawyers who acted for Rakhat Aliyev say they remain unconvinced that their client committed suicide in Vienna.

Observers say the verdicts are a bitter defeat for prosecutors in Vienna and Kazakhstan.

An appeal against the verdicts is possible.

Related Topics

More on this story