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

Kazak Bid to End Abuse of Homeless

Soviet-era detoxification centres detain vagrants illegally and rent them out to farmers and businessmen.
By IWPR Central Asia

The authorities in South Kazakstan are cracking down on the widespread practice of using the homeless effectively as slave labour.

But it is not human rights activists or opposition politicians who are pressing for change, but Turkestan’s city prosecutor Jarkynbek Bakashbaev.

His move follows an inspection of the region’s Soviet-era “detoxification centres”, which are used to detain problem drinkers - usually homeless people - who commit public order offences. The inquiry was prompted by concerns that many were being exploited.

Bakashbaev discovered that in many cases, local police were breaking the law by detaining these people for more than three days - some for as long as 30 days at a time - without permission from the prosecutor’s office. He has now expressly forbidden this practice.

The official also investigated claims that police often accept bribes from local farmers or businessmen who wish to use the detainees as unpaid labour - and has asked the republic’s general prosecutor to press for new legislation to stop the practice.

One former police sergeant who worked in a detoxification centre for several years told IWPR that the racket was commonplace.

“People often came to our boss asking for workers,” said the ex-officer, who gave his name only as Tursun.

“If a farmer is building a cowshed, he might need some unskilled labourers - and you can’t go wrong with a vagrant. He is obedient, doesn’t eat much and is happy if you give him a bottle of cheap wine for his trouble. “Also, if you hit him, he doesn’t hit you back.”

The authorities began looking into the problem after the conviction in January of two brothers from the Baidibek district village of Tyue-Tas for the unlawful imprisonment, cruel treatment and torture of a group of homeless people the previous summer.

The Shymkent court sentenced Karim and Navi Khalitov to 11 and five and half years in prison respectively for illegally detaining four vagrants - including a 54-year-old woman - and forcing them to make bricks, which the brothers then sold.

One of the group escaped and told the police how the brothers had beaten the captives daily and fed them only on bread and water for more than a month.

The homeless people in question had not come from detoxification centres but the case appears to have prompted the authorities to examine claims about their abuse of inmates.

At the beginning of February, following Bakashbaev’s inspection, the South Kazakstan prosecutor asked the general prosecutor to draft new legislation to protect vulnerable homeless people in detoxification centres.

The latter were first established during the Soviet era. Homeless people would be rounded up from towns and villages across the country and deposited in the centres, where they could be held for up to 30 days while their identities were established and a place found for them in a state dormitory.

This was possible under Soviet legislation – but the laws of the independent Kazakstan make no such provision for keeping people in custody without charge or for detaining someone for no other reason that he or she is homeless.

While the police have the power to arrest an individual who is both drunk and causing a public order offence, legislation does not class homelessness itself as a crime.

Shymkent lawyer Bakhyt Usenov told IWPR that locking the homeless up for long periods is clearly illegal.

“The constitution states that a person cannot be detained for more than 72 hours without permission from the state prosecutor,” he said.

“Perhaps this problem has been allowed to continue because the detoxification centres are still run in the same way they were during the Soviet era.”

Analysts say that homeless people in the south of Kazakstan are often looked down upon, as many are petty criminals who have come to the area from other parts of the country to avoid arrest.

Earlier this year, a homeless Uzbek man was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Shymkent court for the fatal beating of a passer-by who had refused to give him money.

And this month, police arrested a homeless man in connection with the murder of a night watchman in the village of Chapaevka.

The local administration does not collect statistics on the number of homeless people currently living rough in the region, but analysts believe there are around a thousand in Shymkent alone during the winter months, with as many as 2,500 flocking to the city in summer.

This has led to rich pickings for unscrupulous police and officials, but former sergeant Tursun told IWPR that not all such transactions involved bribery. He noted that local farmers would sometimes “borrow” detoxification centre inmates and simply phone the police to collect the “workers” when the job was completed.

Olga Dosybieva in Shymkent.

More IWPR's Global Voices