By David Trilling
Allegations that a member of Kyrgyzstan’s KGB-successor agency organized the brutal rape of his wife have outraged women’s rights activists in Bishkek. But what rights defenders call an ordinary crime is having an extraordinary effect because of the victim’s response: she pressed charges.
Nazgul Akmatbek kyzy has pursued her cause, despite, she says, considerable pressure from authorities to drop the case. Most women in Kyrgyzstan are afraid or ashamed to speak about sexual crimes. In a country with patriarchal norms and a dysfunctional justice system, few men are charged, especially husbands, on sexual assault charges, even though government statistics indicate 92 percent of rapes are committed by sexual partners or former partners. Moreover, legal experts say police sometimes try to classify rape within the family as an administrative offense, which carries the same fine as burning garbage in the street – about $20.
In the case of Akmatbek kyzy, the accusations boil down to he-said-she-said. As Akmatbek kyzy tells it, late on June 18, 2011, her then-husband, GKNB officer Azamat Bekboev, and his driver, Arzybek Tuuganbaev, took her into the suburbs of Bishkek and both repeatedly raped her and beat her. Bekboev has denied all the charges. In his defense, he says his former wife (they have since divorced) was the driver’s lover.
A military court acquitted the two men on May 24, agreeing with Bekboev that Akmatbek kyzy was the driver’s lover. Akmatbek kyzy then appealed to a higher military court, which forbid Bekboev from leaving Bishkek and ordered the driver to be jailed. This second trial began earlier this month.
The lack of forensic evidence highlights an additional problem in prosecuting rape cases: Hospitals do not stock rape kits to collect evidence, say women’s rights activists.
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, Bekboev maintained his innocence: “Imagine, I am an officer. I am a father of four. I lived with her for 14 years. How could I rape a woman I had lived with for 14 years? If I had done this, how could I look into my children’s eyes? I would kill myself.”
When pressed for details of that evening, Bekboev at first refused to discuss it, then said he hadn’t left town that night, then said he had. But he insists his wife was cheating and says he never forced her to have sex and never hit her.
Akmatbek kyzy, a petite woman of 36, says that Bekboev commonly beat her in front of their children, and often raped her. She pursued charges at the urging of her sisters because the incident left her suicidal, she said in a tearful interview with EurasiaNet.org. “If I didn’t have children I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I wouldn’t want to live if I didn’t have children.”
“At the trial he laughs at me, calls me a prostitute,” Akmatbek kyzy said. “It’s so painful that we lived for 14 years together, we have four children together, and he’s blaming me, saying I was cheating on him. I never cheated.”
The courts have the attitude that “the rape of a wife is a sex game,” says Elena Tkacheva, Akmatbek kyzy’s therapist and head of the Chance Crisis Center in Bishkek, trying to explain why so few women are willing to report marital rape.
“Nazgul had to tell her story 30 times in court. That’s public humiliation. Then the defense finds minor discrepancies and uses them to discredit her,” Tkacheva explained. “Her neighbors and his [the ex-husband’s] family see her as a traitor because she spoke about something no one ever speaks about. When violence happens in the family, survivors don’t ask for help.”
Women who speak openly about sexual abuse in the family face the risk of double stigma — as “fallen women,” who have been dishonored and sullied, and as backstabbers, who have betrayed their own.
Tkacheva and Akmatbek kyzy are also disappointed at how some local media outlets have reported on the trial. “The news reports said she was stupid, that she should have just relaxed and enjoyed the experience,” said Tkacheva.
Some local observers believe such attitudes reflect officials’ laxness in prosecuting sexual abuse. “The prejudice of investigators sends a message to society,” said Dmitry Kabak, a prominent activist and head of the Open Viewpoint Foundation. “If, instead, law enforcement bodies would actively investigate sexual crimes, it could help stop the daily violence that some people have started calling a tradition.”
International observers say woman in Kyrgyzstan have been particularly hard hit by poverty, which has been growing in the Central Asian nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2010, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women said poverty was fostering gender inequality in Kyrgyzstan, leading “to a return to traditionalism and patriarchy where women view and depend on the family as the center of their life and adopt a position of obedience and submissiveness.”
In 20 years of working with battered women, Tkacheva says she hasn’t seen a single case of marital rape be prosecuted as a crime. “No one – not judges, police officers, local government officials, psychiatrists or doctors – recognize it as such,” she said.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of victims of spousal rape. A representative of the Department of Court Statistics at the Supreme Court told EurasiaNet.org that producing statistics would require one month and a written request delivered by courier. Domestic abuse, however, is considered common. A 2008 UNFPA study found one in four women had suffered domestic violence at home. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence, then, that the same UNFPA study found 70 percent of women convicted of murdering their husbands or other family members were victims of domestic abuse.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet’s Central Asia editor.