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ALMATY (Reuters) - A Kazakh border guard was jailed for life on Tuesday for murdering 14 fellow soldiers and a herder in a mass killing that shocked the Central Asian nation and prompted the president to take the investigation under his personal control.
The bodies were discovered with gunshot wounds in May at a burnt down border post near the mountainous frontier with China.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the vast oil-rich nation with an iron hand for more than two decades, called the murder "a terrorist act" and personally oversaw the investigation.
The only surviving guard from the border post, Vladislav Chelakh, was found at a herders' winter camp. A stolen laptop, a pistol and money of the dead guards were found in his hide-out.
On Tuesday, he was found guilty of murder, theft, desertion and destruction of military property, a spokesman for Kazakhstan's military court told Reuters.
"Given the absence of any mitigating circumstances ... the final sentence was to jail Chelakh Vladislav Valeryevich for life in a penitentiary with heightened security," he said.
Many in the country of 17 million initially blamed the killings on maverick Islamist militants or poachers and Chelakh's case, heard at a military garrison in the town of Taldykorgan in southeastern Kazakhstan, has gripped the nation.
Before the trial, Chelakh had confessed to stealing a Kalashnikov rifle from the armoury and killing the sentry. He said he had then returned to the barracks to kill the rest of his fellow servicemen and set the buildings on fire to cover his tracks. The herder was the last to be killed in his nearby hut.
In the run-up to the trial, Chelakh retracted his testimony, declined to assist the investigation and tried to commit suicide in his prison cell.
When the trial started last month, he declined to speak and tried to slit his veins in the courtroom. A medical expert found him sane. Prosecutors said they had videotaped Chelakh boasting of his killings to his cell mates.
"We will definitely protest this sentence - not just in the Supreme Court, but in the United Nations and other organizations," Interfax news agency quoted Chelakh's mother, Svetlana Vashchenko, as saying after the end of the trial.
"This was an unjust sentence, the child was simply thrown behind bars."
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Alison Williams