Aizada Kanatbekova’s cold, lifeless body lay in a red Honda Civic parked in a field about 25 minutes drive from central Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital.
Next to her, the corpse of 37-year-old Zamirbek Tenizbayev.
On April 7, a witness informed the police about the tragic discovery. The car had been parked there for two days.
Traditionally, the Kyrgyz custom of Ala Kachuu – bride kidnapping – gave young people whose parents were against their marriage the chance to tie the knot according to adat – the local law.
It allowed young couples who wanted to be together against all odds to elope.
But Aizada and Zamirbek were not the Kyrgyz Romeo and Juliet.
Ever since the Soviet era ended and Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, the custom of Ala Kachuu, which dates back to the 17th century, has been increasingly used as a way to abduct women and force them into marriage against their will.
‘You won’t be able to defend yourself’
Aizada, 27, worked as a Turkish translator in a textile company.
On April 5, her colleagues informed her mother that she had not made it to work.
Her family immediately started their search. They felt that something bad had happened.
In the preceding months, Aizada had complained about a stalker. Though they had met on the internet, she was not interested in continuing the acquaintance.
But Zamirbek Tenizbayev was not ready to let her go. He found out where she worked and walked home with her several times. When she rejected his advances, threats began.
“He told her: ‘There are only women in your family and you won’t be able to defend yourself, even if I do something to you.’ Then he started following her and threatening her that he would stab her mother,” Baktygul Shakenova, Aizada’s aunt, told Al Jazeera.
“This went on for a while. On the advice of her friends, Aizada turned to a lawyer, but he told her there was little they could do.”
The day they realised Aizada was missing, her family went to the police station and quickly found out that she had been kidnapped by four men. A CCTV recording soon emerged.
According to Aizada’s aunt, the police joked that they should soon expect gifts from matchmakers, as required by the Kyrgyz tradition.
“One investigator, Ularbek, said that in his youth he also stole a woman and everything worked out between them,” Shakenova said. “I said that Aizada would have called us, to which he replied that they had probably stopped somewhere to eat and drink and that they will call us by the evening.”
Systemic bride kidnapping
The practice of bride kidnapping is prolific in Kyrgyzstan.
The United Nations estimated in 2018 that almost 14 percent of all Kyrgyz women under 24 were married through some form of coercion.
The same year, Kyrgyz police stated that over a five-year period, they had received 895 reports of abductions with the purpose of marriage.
According to rights groups, however, the data does not reflect the true scale of the problem.
Even though authorities upped penalties for bride-kidnapping in 2013, making the crime punishable with up to seven years of imprisonment, the situation has remained largely unchanged since.
Most victims do not file charges against their kidnappers.
According to Munara Beknazarova, the head of the Open Line foundation, a gender equality NGO, persistent social stereotypes hinder progress.
“In Kyrgyzstan, boys are raised believing that they can get whatever they want just because they are men. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the courts and all the other official bodies make decisions based on such stereotypical thinking,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Education and civil society should actively work to change the situation. Especially that even law enforcement agencies often romanticise the practice instead of investigating kidnappings.”
‘We want justice’
Although Aizada’s mother repeatedly claimed that her daughter feared Tenizbayev, the police were reportedly slow to begin the search.
At 6pm, Aizada called her mother and said she had been taken south but assured her that she would soon be back home. According to her mother, her voice sounded desperate.
According to the family’s lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, investigators visited Aizada’s neighbourhood and asked invasive questions about her lifestyle.
Faced with police inaction, Aizada’s family started their own search.
They posted the recording of her kidnapping on social media in the hope that someone would help them find Aizada. Two days later, news of her death reached the public.
Tenizbayev, the kidnapper, who according to reports was previously involved in sexualised violence, strangled Aizada and then took his own life by stabbing himself with a knife.
Her family found out about her killing on Instagram. The police only contacted them six days later.
Protests erupted in Bishkek following the news. The head of Bishkek police and 11 officers were dismissed.
During a press conference, the police stated that 200 officers were looking for Aizada, but the family does not trust the figures.
“The police can find drunk drivers in 20 minutes with only five officers. In Aizada’s case, they said they had used 200 but, in fact, they did not even bother to look for her,” Toktakunov, the family lawyer, said.
“If we look at the problem from the legal point of view, it is clear that it has to be tackled from within the law enforcement bodies. A couple of scapegoats were found guilty in this case, but it will not lead to any systemic changes. It is about time that the authorities take not only a formal but a moral responsibility for the situation.”
Police negligence fuelled by a culture that normalises bride kidnappings eventually led to the death of Aizada, her aunt said through tears.
During the interview with Al Jazeera, she appealed to the country’s president, Sadyr Japarov, to find those responsible for Aizada’s death.
“Aizada was goal-oriented, kind and responsible. She dreamed of securing her mother’s future, buying a car and an apartment. She was fluent in Turkish, and studied Korean and Chinese,” Shakenova, the aunt, said.
“Their negligence killed our girl. She would be alive if they were looking for her. All we want is justice. For Aizada.”
Aigerim Turgunbaeva reported from Bishkek: @AigiTurgunbaeva