The flurry of speculations around the July 20 death of well-known journalist Askhat Sharipzhanov does not seem likely to subside in the coming weeks. Sharipzhanov, the 40-year old editor of the opposition electronic paper Navigator and one of the most furious critics of the authorities, was struck by a car at the intersection of Abai Street and Auezov Avenue in Almaty on July 16. According to the official account of the incident, the journalist was crossing the street when a Mitsubishi Galant began moving towards him at normal speed. Sharipzhanov suddenly stopped and ran back. The driver veered and stepped on the brakes but could not avoid hitting the man. According to police reports, the driver, Kanat Kalzhanov from Kyzylorda region, immediately administered first aid to the injured Sharipzhanov and called an ambulance and the police.
Sharipzhanov was taken to the Almaty city clinic #7 with severe head injuries. He lapsed into a coma and died on July 20. “Doctors did everything to bring him back to life. The best [medical] forces in Kazakhstan were used,” said the head of the Almaty Health Department, Vasily Devyatko, at a press conference (Kazakhstan Today, July 20). Addressing the media, doctors and police were unanimous in stating that a clinical analysis had found traces of alcohol in journalist’s blood. The Almaty Traffic Police Department ruled the incident as an ordinary traffic accident.
But at a press conference on July 19, the chief editor of the Navigator II Internet newspaper (navi.kz), Yuri Mizinov expressed strong doubts about the official version of the accident. He said that a tape recorder belonging to Sharipzhanov had disappeared from the scene of the accident. According to him, shortly before the accident Sharipzhanov had spoken of his intention to interview the controversial Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbay uly, known for his support for the pro-democratic Ak Zhol party, and Zamanbek Nurkadilov, whose bold verbal attacks on President Nursultan Nazarbaev had stunned the country in March. Mizinov alleged that tapes containing those recordings had never been found. At the same time, the head of the Investigation Department of the Almaty city police, Igor Morgun, said at the press conference that the ambulance attendants who were first to arrive at the scene of the accident did not see any recorder. Mizinov recalled that over the last two and a half years there have been three traffic accidents in Almaty involving journalists. Zamanbek Nurkadilov, who also spoke at the press conference, went as far as to directly accuse the authorities of murdering the journalist, although at the time of his statement Sharipzhanov was still alive, albeit in a hospital bed (Panorama, July 23).
Sharipzhanov’s death is reminiscent of the similar tragedy in Shymkent, South Kazakhstan, where an independent journalist, Nuri Muftakh of the opposition Azat newspaper, was run over by a car while on assignment in that city. The authorities then brushed off the opposition’s allegations that Muftakh’s death was pre-meditated murder. But Saripzhanov’s case carries more political implications, as it occurred in the context of the approaching elections to the Majilis, the lower chamber of parliament. Police officials announced that it was premature to conclude who was to blame for the moving violation, the journalist or the driver. They added that investigations were still underway, but there was nothing yet to suggest political motives for the accident. Nevertheless, some prominent politicians and journalists established an independent public committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding Sharipzhanov’s death (Panorama, July 23).
However, some media outlets do not attach any political significance to the accident. The weekly Oko, for example did not even mention Sharipzhanov’s death in its July 23 issue. The paper Megapolis, where Sharipzhanov had worked as a staff writer some time ago, irritably wrote that some people “who call themselves democrats” were exploiting the death of the journalist and the sorrow of his next-of-kin to their own political ends (Megapolis, July 22).