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

Kazak Cops Hammer Counter-culture

Lead an alternative lifestyle in Almaty and you may well end up bribed, beaten or tortured
By Erbol Jumagulov

Almaty's police are resorting to torture in their war against Kazakstan's burgeoning bohemian counter-culture. Their targets are a growing army of street musicians, alternative artists, a cult devoted to Tolkien, anarchists and gays, whose unconventional lifestyles infuriate them.

Last week, police arrested a group of street musicians entertaining bystanders in Almaty and beat them up. The buskers, released three days later, say they had been put in a remand prison and assaulted to make them confess they were drug-dealers.

"They wouldn't let us sleep for three days," one musician said. "They insulted us and physically humiliated us. They look on street musicians as despicable, low-life individuals."

The leader of well-known punk rock band, Alexander, nicknamed 'The Wild One', said the police held him on one occasion for two days and subjected him to a particularly nasty form of interrogation known as the 'water tank'.

This involves putting a detainee in a narrow cell, just four and a half feet high, which is half filled with cold water so he is unable to stand upright and has to crouch to avoid drowning.

Kasym Abyljakypov, a general practitioner, said he had tended to numerous victims of the 'water tank' treatment who have been left suffering from urinary tract disorders.

Psychologist Marina Levitskaya believes police violence is provoking desperation among youngsters, driving many into depression and some to the edge of suicide. The interior ministry, however, dismisses accusations of abuse of power by its officers - and police routinely refuse to answer questions on the subject.

In their non-committal responses, they insist they follow orders to the letter without unnecessarily violating human rights. On the other hand, victims of police violence are too afraid of reprisals to complain.

Almaty's 'alternative' community is about 25,000-strong, according to unofficial figures, and every youth group has its own lifestyle, clothing and customs. It's not only their unconventional dress sense that antagonises the police but their unconventional public behaviour. The police say it may incite public unrest, though what they probably dislike most is the fact that they look different.

One well-known Kazak artist said, "Every youth group falls foul of the police for different reasons. The police hate alternative artists for exhibiting their unusual art in public places. They hate Tolkien followers for their conventions, where they dress up as their favourite Tolkien characters." Apparently, the police are particularly averse to their home-made rubber axes and wooden swords.

"We are perfectly legal," said Vitaly, a Tolkien follower. "We spend most of our time in the mountains. We only hold conventions in the city twice a year. It's our lifestyle. The police don't like it, but we aren't going to stop. It's our entire life."

The question is why are the police so determined to outlaw the counter-culture. A sociologist, Dmitri Avilkin, said the lower echelons of the law enforcement hierarchy are naturally averse to unconventional lifestyles. "There is no expertise in the system for addressing youth issues competently," he said.

A sergeant from the Almaty police department unwittingly confirmed this observation. "Their crazy looks and behaviour annoy me," he said. "If I had my way, I would put those lowlifes away, cut their hair and goatees, dress them in normal clothes, and make them go get a job."

In spite of repression, Kazakstan's counter-culture continues to expand and diversify. In the 1960s, it took people guts to let their hair down and call themselves 'hippies', as the authorities would lock them away.

Today, such fashion statements no longer outrage the community and even 'free love' does not raise an eyebrow. "Let them do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't affect us," Anastasia Karpova, a Second World War veteran said.

The police, however, remain committed to old, hard-line ways. And current laws mean alternative types are extremely vulnerable to over-zealous policing - unconventional behaviour qualifies as a violation of public order, which is a valid reason for an arrest.

The situation is made worse by the fact that the police are under pressure from the government to increase crime-detection rates. As a result, officers are desperate to frame buskers, and many other people, on drug charges. High-ranking police officials are either unaware, or unconcerned, about the heavy-handed tactics used by their subordinates to achieve their crime-solving quotas.

Having declared its commitment to such basic freedoms as the freedom of movement, press, worship and employment, Kazakstan continues to suppress alternative cultural groups with the aid of the uniformed philistines in its police force.

For instance, the police recently detained a group of Hare Krishna followers and seized their books. When they refused to pay a bribe, the police burned their books in front of them and cut off the Krishna followers' braids.

Such behaviour poses a long term threat to the country's culture and arts, and helps explain why famous cultural workers and youth icons have been leaving the country in droves. Many are now citizens of Russia, Israel, Canada, the United States, Australia, and other countries. Whether the police will ever learn the basics of civilised behaviour is uncertain. Possibly, they cannot be bothered.

Erbol Jumagulov and Eduard Poletaev are regular IWPR contributors