Kyrgyzstan: Victims of Police Abuse Struggle for Justice
At the end of May, it will be one year since my human rights group, Ventus, took up the case of Abazbek Chynyev, who is seeking the prosecution of police officers whom he accuses of torturing him.
Although we succeeded in getting the chief prosecutor’s office to review the case, and persuaded the presidential administration and human rights ombudsman to press local prosecutors in Issykkul region to take action, there has been no substantive progress as yet.
Chynyev’s case demonstrates that individual campaigns have little chance of securing justice in the face of a culture of impunity and institutional resistance to external scrutiny.
In such an environment, the only way of achieving a breakthrough is to push for comprehensive reforms to a system that at present, allows such abuses of people in detention to take place.
One of the preconditions for change is that the long-awaited legislation to enact a “national preventive mechanism” envisaged by the optional protocol to the international convention against torture should be finally passed.
Mechanisms allowing public scrutiny of the law-enforcement and prosecution agencies should be expanded beyond the current groups that carry out such monitoring in the capital Bishkek. Another important step would be allowing private rather than state-run clinics to conduct independent assessments of individuals who claim they have been tortured.
Chynyev, now, 33, was arrested in May 2009 in the town of Balykchi in Issykkul region. He was detained on suspicion of possessing and transporting 45 grams of hashish; he insists police planted the drugs on him.
While he was in detention, he says, two officers repeatedly beat him with truncheons, punched and kicked him, and threatened to sexually assault and kill him. As a result, he made a confession under duress.
Still within the 48-hour period within which a person can be initially detained, Chynyev was brought before a prosecutor, to whom he complained he had been tortured. But he says the prosecutor refused to listen and dismissed him.
The same prosecutor gave my Ventus group a different account, saying Chynyev did not make an allegation of torture, and that if he had done so, he would have been sent for medical checks immediately. He argued that Chynyev was not injured at the police station, and that medical evidence produced after he was examined in hospital a week later was not acceptable proof.
These tests – conducted immediately after a court ordered his release on bail – show that he had a head injury as well as bruising to his lower back. He has since undergone several courses of treatment, and has been in hospital since the end of February. An assessment conducted by the rehabilitation centre for torture victims states that he also suffered psychological trauma.
Chynyev and his lawyer succeeded in getting a criminal case opened last July, but for the lesser offence of assault leading to injury rather than torture.
This was followed by repeated attempts to block further proceedings. Police and prosecutors in Balykchi did not carry out a request from the regional prosecutor’s office to conduct an investigation, and refused to cooperate with the national ombudsman’s office. As a result, the case has been halted three times – in October and December last year, and again this April. By way of an explanation, officials at the regional prosecutor’s office cited lack of evidence and the absence of witnesses of the alleged torture.
Their most recent refusal to re-open the case against the police officers comes after the prosecutor general’s office intervened in February, reviewing the evidence and overruling earlier decisions to halt it, on the grounds that the investigation of Chynyev’s alleged drugs offence was flawed.
Meanwhile, the ombudsman’s office said it was unable to pursue Chynyev’s complaint due to lack of cooperation from regional prosecutors, who refused its requests to look at his file.
The prosecutor’s office in Issykkul has thus ignored all requests from higher bodies to pursue the matter, including from the government and the presidential administration.
The police officers accused in the case deny assaulting Chynyev and fabricating legal documents. The deputy head of the Balykchi district police department said his men were incapable of committing such an act, while his colleagues at the provincial-level police department insisted the officers did nothing illegal.
Ventus has spoken to Erkinbek Kurmanaliev, the investigator assigned by the regional prosecutor’s office to look into Chynyev’s claim, and who was behind the decision to halt the case in April, declined to comment on allegations that progress is being deliberately blocked. He refused to comment on suggestions of a cover-up and denied rejected allegations of corrupt practices.
Given the current state of affairs in law-enforcement and the judiciary, it is unsurprising that the system fails people like Chynyev who wish to pursue claims of mistreatment at the hands of the police.
No one has been found guilty of torture since it was introduced into Kyrgyz legislation in 2003, as a separate offence committed by agents of the state.
Out of 11 criminal cases which the prosecutor general’s office brought last year on the basis of complaints of police mistreatment, two concerned charges of torture, one a lesser charge of physical mistreatment, and eight the offence of “exceeding one’s authority”.
These figures indicate that official resistance to acknowledging the existence of torture remains very strong.
Matters are not helped by the procrastination in passing a bill on national preventive mechanisms, which would open up the treatment of detainees to external scrutiny.
Kyrgyzstan has been a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment since 1996. Two years later, it became the first Central Asian state to ratify the optional protocol, which requires signatories to design and implement preventive mechanisms under which a public monitoring group consisting of experts and human rights defenders can pay regular visits to places of detention. Legislation on this should have been passed by January at the latest, but it has been delayed, principally by police resistance to the kind of complete and unrestricted access envisaged by the UN protocol.
The law would have a direct bearing on the cases of individuals who find themselves in Chynyev’s position. Detainees are particularly vulnerable in the period between the start of an investigation and the formal launch of criminal proceedings. It is during this time that torture is most likely to take place, as police try to coerce a confession as an easy way to a successful prosecution. An awareness that external monitors might turn up unannounced and take swift action on possible cases of torture would serve as a major deterrent to abuse.
Such monitoring would have to take place nationwide, covering facilities run by national, regional and district law-enforcement agencies.
Furthermore, I believe that private clinics must be given authorisation to carry out independent medical testing of alleged torture victims. This is needed in order to break the current monopoly held by the state-funded National Forensic Medicine Centre, which cannot be trusted to provide unbiased assessments due to its close links with law-enforcement.
At the moment such examinations can only be carried out on the basis of a referral from the police services – this too must change. Finally, I believe the state should underwrite the costs of such private examinations.
Last year, human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan received more than 300 complaints or applications for help from individuals who said they had suffered abuse in places of detention. This figure needs to be seen in the context of a spike in prosecutions and trials in the months following last June’s bloodshed in and around the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad.
Many human rights organisations have voiced serious concern that suspects have been subjected to torture and other forms of mistreatment while in custody.
A report by the Independent Inquiry Commission, published on May 3 this year, found that there was a consistent and reliable body of evidence pointing to acts of torture committed in places of detention in the aftermath of the June violence. The commission said it was particularly concerned that such acts appeared to be continuing and that the authorities’ response to date had been “grossly inadequate”.
In this post-conflict environment, therefore, there is added urgency to the need to end abuse by law-enforcement officers.
It is not just a question of creating a better, more just society where public institutions are accountable and those employed by the state can be made to answer for wrongdoings. By publicly acknowledging that the problem exists, and demonstrating that they are serious about tackling it, the Kyrgyz authorities will take a major step towards regaining public confidence in their ability to administer restorative justice. Post-conflict reconciliation and ultimately national unity in Kyrgyzstan depend on that trust being rebuilt.
Kamil Ruziev is head of the Ventus human rights group in Kyrgyzstan.
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.