Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Death Stalks Stalks Azeri Prisons

Half the prisoners in Azerbaijan have tuberculosis, and hundreds are dying of it.
By Namik Ibragimov

Vugar Hamidov's eyes show only the dull look of hopelessness. He is unbearably thin, his chest and cheeks are sunken and he walks with a stoop. He coughs frequently as he talks.

Hamidov has advanced tuberculosis, contracted while serving a two-and-a-half year sentence in an Azerbaijani prison following a drugs conviction. He is one of the luckier ones - at least he is not in jail any more.

Now he lives at home with his widowed mother, who works as a cleaner.

"The man who thought up the phrase 'place of correction' for our prisons had a rich imagination and a big sense of humour," the ex-convict told IWPR. "I came out broken and destroyed. I had absolutely healthy lungs, and now I have to find a lot of money to cure my tuberculosis."

"I could have been freed long before the TB started up inside me," he said. "But I didn't find the 200 US dollars to pay off the courts. If I had been released three months before the end of my sentence maybe the disease would not have reached such an advanced stage.

"I am basically dying now."

Hamidov's story is typical of people who spend any length of time in one of Azerbaijan's prisons. An astonishing 49 per cent of current prisoners have tuberculosis, an international conference held in the capital Baku was told in May. For the last few years, three quarters of all deaths in jail are attributable to TB. Last year, that meant 178 out of the 230 people in the morgue had died of it. That was 13 more than in 2001, but less than in previous years which have seen a decline in TB deaths since 1995.

At least the tuberculosis scourge is finally on the agenda in Azerbaijan. The May conference, hosted jointly by Azerbaijan's justice ministry and the International Committee of the Red Cross, discussed how best to fight the disease, and noted some positive developments. As one human rights activist noted, none of the 70 inmates of the prison for underage offenders has tuberculosis. Baku's central prison hospital now has a new laboratory with equipment for diagnosing TB in women.

But stopping the disease will not be easy. One reason is the corruption prevalent in Azerbaijani prisons. Sick prisoners are forced to pay for their own treatment.

"To get a place in hospital, you have to pay out of your own pocket," said former inmate Teimur Abdulkhanly. "Getting just a bed costs around 50 dollars a week, without even any medicine." As a result, he says, some hospital wards are full of healthy convicts who have enough cash to buy themselves a cushy number.

However, wealth does not stop a prisoner contracting TB. In 1999 a notorious underworld boss known as Bakhtiar died of the disease while in jail.

Those who cannot afford treatment are certainly worse off, as they stay cooped up in crowded huts or cells, where they infect their companions and are weakened by poor nutrition.

"Up to 80 or 100 people live in these huts and many of them eat there too, as the food in the canteen is not fit for consumption and the only ones who eat it are people who don't get visits from friends or relatives," explained Vugar Hamidov. "There was a time when I ate nothing but bread for several months on end."

The effects are catastrophic, says TB doctor Barat Ispandiarov.

"The extremely meagre rations and the over-crowding in cells makes the situation worse," he told IWPR. "It's well known that tuberculosis is often activated by under-nourishment and lack of vitamins."

Long-term prisoners are at most risk, such as the dozens of members of the OPON special police force who have contracted TB since they were jailed in 1995-96 on convictions of planning a coup d'etat.

"We did hope that they would fall under the president's latest amnesty, but sadly that didn't happen," said Rena Saladdinova, deputy head of the Fund for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights.

Official statistics say that Azerbaijan has 12,000 prisoners. But this figure is obviously wrong, since a presidential amnesty issued on May 9 affected some 14,000 people, freeing some and reducing the sentences of others. Non-government organisations estimate the real number of prisoners is higher still, at around 18,000.

Prisoners who have served more than half of their sentence can seek a court order for release, but if they are asked to pay a bribe and cannot find the money they won't get out. Many don't even have time to seek a reprieve.

"My son went astray and was given a two year sentence," said Natela Hajieva, the mother of a TB victim. "He was a healthy lad but a year later they returned me a withered body. He died suffering in agony."

As he lay dying Natela's son asked her, "Mother, why did God punish me?"

Namik Ibragimov is a journalist with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku