Many Americans have been astounded that the Kazakh students Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov were willing to risk lengthy prison terms to help two Dagestan buddies implicated in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Not me – because in my seven years in Kazakhstan, I have seen the "helping your buddy” mentality taken to extremes. Even assaulting a professor. I’ll get to that later.
Meanwhile, Kazakhs have been shocked over Kadyrbayev’s and Tazhayakov’s arrests, given that the 19-year-olds "didn’t do anything” in the bombings.
News accounts have indicated that the Kazakhs were unaware that the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were planning a terrorist act. Tamerlan died in a shootout with authorities after the bombings, which killed three and wounded scores, and Dzhokhar was wounded and faces a trial that could bring the death penalty.
What the Kazakh students, Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, did was try to dispose of evidence linking the Tsarnaevs to the bombings, according to federal prosecutors. The materials included Dzhokhar’s computer, prosecutors say.
A number of my Kazakh friends are convinced that, since the Kazakh exchange students "didn’t do anything,” the charges against them will be dismissed or they will be convicted and receive probation.
I love you, my friends, but you’re wrong.
As a journalist who has written or edited stories about a number of high-profile American court cases, I am well acquainted with the U.S. justice system.
Even if an American jury believes that the Kazakh students were well-meaning but naïve young men, it will convict them if there is evidence they obstructed justice. And the judge will sentence them to prison – not probation.
Twelve years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans’ psyches are still raw from the atrocity. The U.S. justice system is going to do everything it can to see that anyone a jury decides is connected with a terrorist attack or its aftermath gets real punishment, not a slap on the wrist.
Anything less would send a terrible message to the American public, thousands of whom have suffered the loss of friends or loved ones from 9/11 and other acts of terrorism.
My prediction: Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, who each face 20 years in prison, will receive at least five years. Perhaps more.
One of my first thoughts when I read about the Kazakh students’ arrests was that the "help your buddy at all costs” mentality is a dangerous train of thought to take overseas.
I can tell you for sure that Americans resent those who try to help a friend get away with a crime. They want to see justice prevail – and they dislike anything that gets in its way.
I will never forget the first time I experienced the "help your friend at all costs” mentality in Kazakhstan. I still shake my head over it.
It came while I was teaching journalism at KIMEP – the Kazakhstan Institute for Management, Economics and Strategic Research – a few years ago.
One of the university’s department chairs was a guy I’ll call Charlie.
One day Charlie walked into a third-floor restroom to find a big student beating the hell out of a much smaller one.
"There was blood everywhere,” Charlie told me. "The kid being attacked was covered with blood, and half the floor had blood on it.”
Charlie yelled out to the attacker: "What the hell are you doing?,” and the kid ran out the door.
Charlie gave chase, yelling at him to "get back here.”
His plan was to turn him over to university security or the Almaty Police Department.
Two buddies of the attacker had stationed themselves halfway down the hallway, waiting for the attack in the restroom to finish.
When they saw Charlie pursuing their friend, they tackled the professor like American football linebackers flattening a running back.
Then they held him to the floor until their buddy made good his escape. Finally, they sped away themselves.
None of the miscreants was caught. The victim, who was scared he’d get worse the next time, said he didn’t know who the attacker was.
I will never forget how outraged I was about this "help your buddy” attack on an American professor.
In the United States, if the perpetrators had been caught, they would not only have faced being expelled from the university but also criminal assault charges.
My experience with what happened at KIMEP was why I was not surprised that the Kazakh students in Boston are facing obstruction-of-justice charges in what looks for all the world like a case of "helping your buddies.”
My heart goes out to the boys’ families, who are suffering now and will suffer a lot more before this is over. I hope they prepare themselves for a conviction and prison terms, because I have no doubt that that’s what’s coming. You simply don’t mess around with terrorism in the United States.
Let me close by noting that the students involved in the restroom assault and on the tackling of Charlie at KIMEP are not representative of the student body there.
Most KIMEP students are great – smart, well-mannered, with their hearts and priorities in the right place.
All over Kazakhstan you’ll find KIMEP graduates in good jobs – a testament to the kind of classy young men and women who go there.
By Hal Foster
Ex-Los Angeles Times journalist, journalism professor