The ordeal is not over for a transgender convict in Kazakhstan whose attacker has been sentenced to prison and stripped of his rank after he was convicted of sexually assaulting her in an Almaty prison.
Thirty-year-old Viktoria Berikqozhaeva now fears retaliation by her attacker’s sympathizers and former colleagues while she completes her own prison sentence.
Berikqozhaeva’s outspokenness and the particulars of the case have attracted extensive media attention in this conservative Central Asian republic, including spotlighting the plight of female inmates.
Berikqozhaeva is serving a seven-year sentence for extortion, and she says she has faced harassment, insults, and humiliation since her arrest in 2017.
“I’d never seen this level of harassment when I was free,” Berikqozhaeva said, describing her and other female prisoners’ vulnerability behind bars.
The name of the security officer who assaulted her — a major in the National Security Committee (KNB) — has never been made public.
His official duties for the KNB included meeting with prisoners convicted of extremism charges. The job reportedly gave him unlimited access to the Zhaugashty Prison where Berikqozhaeva is serving her sentence.
Berikqozhaeva filed an official complaint in the summer of 2019 in which she accused the officer of sexually assaulting her multiple times. Her lawyer, Aiman Umarova, said Berikqozhaeva provided crucial “material evidence” of the crime.
The Zhaugashty women’s prison near Almaty
The officer was detained and a criminal investigation was launched in October 2019.
He was convicted by the Ile District Court in Almaty earlier this month.
He has denied the charges and is likely to appeal the verdict.
Berikqozhaeva and her lawyer predicted they still have a “major fight” ahead of them as they expect the officer’s high-placed contacts to try to help him escape punishment.
Umarova, who frequently shares Facebook updates on the widely watched case, has alleged that there were significant attempts to pressure her client to drop her complaint and to influence the court’s decision over the past year.
Sexual minorities in the former Soviet republic of around 18 million people are frequently targeted by efforts to publicly shame them.
Berikqozhaeva says sexual harassment and verbal assaults began from the first day she was incarcerated.
“The staff asked me to undress, show my genitals, breasts. They demanded that I give them [oral sex], let them touch my body,” she told local media.
Berikqozhaeva says her previous complaints were ignored and she didn’t have “physical evidence to back them.”
Berikqozhaeva first drew local media attention when authorities couldn’t decide whether to place her in a men’s or women’s detention facility after her sentencing three years ago.
Berikqozhaeva had undergone several gender reassignment procedures prior to her imprisonment and identified herself as a woman. But she was still a man under Kazakh law.
After initial confusion, the authorities sent her to a women’s facility. She later described her cellmates as upset over the arrangement.
Berikqozhaeva eventually obtained a new passport that correctly identified her gender and she legally changed her name from Karimzhan to Viktoria.
She was convicted of trying to coerce an acquaintance to pay her tens of thousands of dollars for cosmetic surgery that she planned to undergo.
Media interest in her story continued well after her sentencing, and Berikqozhaeva continued to give interviews to reporters via a prison payphone.
Topics included relationships within her family, her dreams of someday becoming a wife and mother, and plans for an autobiography.
One interview focused on her heartbreak when a boyfriend left her after finding about her “past.” She also spoke in sometimes graphic terms about a wealthy “secret” lover who generously sponsored her new life in a big city.
But the interviews also began to reflect the abuse that she alleged was taking place in custody, seemingly prompting authorities to act.
In Kazakhstan, victims of sexual harassment frequently avoid reporting such attacks out of fear that it might bring shame on their families.
But Kazakh women have begun increasingly to break their silence.
Natalya Slekishina (right) with her lawyer Aiman Omarova,, who also represents Viktoria Berikqozhaeva. (file photo)
In 2016, Natalya Slekishina accused four prison guards of gang-raping her in custody in Almaty. During the trial, she testified that she wasn’t “the only one” who had faced sexual abuse in prison. Slekishina also said she was beaten and threatened after she reported the rape.
Only one of the four guards was charged and received a prison sentence.
Rights campaigner Marianna Gurina told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service that, in Kazakh prisons, women find themselves in an “absolutely defenseless” and “vulnerable” position.
“And when she is humiliated and raped in prison, she has practically no chance to complain to authorities,” Gurina said.
Umarova represented both Slekishina and Berikqozhaeva.
She says sexual abuse is a form of torture that has no place in the prison system.