ALMATY (Reuters) - Going to study in America was a dream come true for Kazakh students Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, an escape from a regimented life under authoritarian rule in their Central Asian homeland.
Their arrest on charges of impeding the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings to help their friend, prime suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, left many in the huge former Soviet republic in disbelief.
Tazhayakov had enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending an elite school in the capital Astana. Kadyrbayev had found it harder at school in the commercial capital Almaty but was delighted when he got the grades to study in the United States.
Although Kadyrbayev listed Islam as his world view on what appears to be his social media site, nothing obvious marked either out as someone who might one day help a suspected bomber.
“He studied here for a year. He didn’t do particularly well at anything,” said Yuri Dovgal, deputy director of academic affairs at a school attended by Kadyrbayev in Almaty which specializes in mathematics and physics.
Asked about Kadyrbayev’s religious leanings, he said: “There was nothing of the kind. Just a lack of punctuality.”
Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev, both 19, are charged with conspiring to obstruct justice by hiding a backpack and fireworks they found in Tsarnaev’s dorm room. They could face up to five years in prison.
PRESIDENT‘S IRON GRIP
There appears to have been nothing extraordinary about the two boys as they were brought up in different cities in Kazakhstan, a country five times the size of France and home to 3 percent of the world’s recoverable oil reserves.
Kazakhstan has been ruled by one man, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, since it became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991. He shows no tolerance of dissent and no sign of relaxing his firm grip on the country of steppes, desert and mountains.
“We were shocked. Everyone knows my son. He’s never fought anyone,” Amir Ismagoulov, Tazhayakov’s father, told a local television channel. “He’s never been in touch with any radicals. He doesn’t go to the mosque unless we go or there’s another reason. In the U.S. he has never been to a mosque.”
The interview was recorded a week before the boys were arrested over the bombing. Ismagoulov was commenting on his son’s detention with Kadyrbayev on suspicion of violating the terms of their U.S. visas by skipping class.
Kadyrbayev’s father also defended his son in an interview with a local television station last week.
“He passed his exams this summer ... The invitation came through from the university, and everyone was very happy,” Murat Kadyrbayev said in comments made after his son was questioned over the bombings last month.
“As my son was a friend of Tsarnaev in the campus dormitory, they came under suspicion. But they were released within 12 hours because they had nothing to do with these events.”
What is not in doubt is that they both knew Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who had lived in Russia’s North Caucasus.
Tsarnaev was captured by police after a manhunt. His brother Tamerlan, who is also suspected of carrying out the bombings, was shot dead by police in a firefight.
Both Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov have pictures of themselves with Tsarnaev on what appear to be their profiles on VKontakte, a Russian-language social media site.
On his, Kadyrbayev lists his world view as Islam and says the main thing in life is “perfecting the world”.
The pictures and videos on the site show his love of BMW cars. Kadyrbayev’s father said the two students had bought one themselves and dismissed suggestions it had been stolen.
One picture appears to show Kadyrbayev standing with Tsarnaev and Tazhayakov in Times Square in New York.
What appears to be Tazhayakov’s VKontakte profile shows his love of soccer and U.S. pop music, at one point quoting a song by the group Green Day. There are no obvious signs that might point to militant or radical beliefs.
Friends and relatives described Kadyrbayev as sociable and always ready to help others. His father said he loved listening to music and writing songs. But he appears at one stage to have been thrown out of school for not doing well enough.
“He entered (the school) in 2008 the same way everyone else did, through a competitive process. They have to pass three subjects: maths, physics and logic in the form of a test. He got the necessary score, he got on the list and was accepted,” Dovgal told Reuters.
“But at the end of ninth grade in 2009, he was expelled. So he was expelled ... because he only had ‘satisfactory’ marks in the core subjects, such as algebra, geometry and physics.”
It was not immediately clear where he finished school before going to the United States.
Tazhayakov’s parents were divorced when he was a child. Born in the town of Atyrau, known as the oil capital of Kazakhstan, he later studied at the private “Miras” school in Astana.
The Kazakh Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Thursday condemning any form of terrorism and said it was cooperating with the United States over the bombings. But many people in Kazakhstan were simply bewildered.
“This doesn’t mean that they were involved. Maybe they didn’t know that they (the Tsarnaevs) were terrorists. Friends are friends, friends can be different. You don’t even know what they do before (you meet them),” said Timur, a student.
Another Almaty resident, who gave her name only as Meruert, said: “You know, I think they’re innocent, that they weren’t involved in any way. They just turned out to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong people.”
Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana and Shavkat Rakhmatullaev in Almaty, writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Will Waterman