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

Kazak Prison Riots Highlight Poor Conditions

Central government’s commitment to penal reform has yet to feed through to prison management, activists say.
  • Prison rights activist Vadim Kuramshin outside a penal institution near Granitny in Akmola region, scene of a riot in August.  (Photo: Vadim Kuramshin)
    Prison rights activist Vadim Kuramshin outside a penal institution near Granitny in Akmola region, scene of a riot in August. (Photo: Vadim Kuramshin)

The authorities in Kazakstan need to accelerate penal reforms and improve conditions to avoid further protests by inmates, rights activists say.

The latest in a series of protests was a hunger strike at Zone 40, a high-security prison near the village of Dolinka in Karaganda region. Prison rights activist Vadim Kuramshin reported on November 20 that inmates alleged they were subject to brutal treatment and deprived of decent food and clothing, and HIV-positive convicts were not being given medical treatment.

Protests have been reported at other prisons in Karaganda, the location of a network of prison camps dating from Stalin’s rule and known as “Karlag”. On November 8, 12 inmates of the nearby Zone 41 facility mutilated themselves by slashing their stomachs.

RFE/RL quoted Natalya Gorina, spokesperson for the prison authorities in Karaganda, as saying the injured convicts, who had been taken to hospital, were demanding a relaxation in prison rules.

These two cases bring the number of protests reported since June to ten. Most have taken place in high-security facilities in northern and central parts of Kazakstan.

Kuramshin said there had been two incidents in Akmola region, one of them a riot at a prison near the town of Granitny, two more in Kostanay, one in the North Kazakstan region, and one at a detention centre in Almaty in July, in which prisoners’ relatives say there were at least 30 cases of self-mutilation, although officials have confirmed only two.

Precise figures are hard to come by, according to Ardak Janabilova, who is a member of a public commission monitoring penal institutions in Almaty region and heads the human rights group Sauygu, which is part of Kazakstan’s NGO Coalition Against Torture.

"The total number of inmates who have mutilated themselves by cutting their stomachs, necks or arms is being carefully concealed by prison officials, and many of the cases are not accessible to rights defenders," she said.

Janabilova described the riot at the prison near Granitny, which happened in August and was the largest in recent months. She said about 350 inmates took part in the incident over three days, and believes four people died, while the authorities say it was only two.

The trouble began when at least 80 inmates cut themselves in an attempt to highlight conditions at the jail. When there was no response, prisoners barricaded themselves in one of the cell blocks. An interior ministry unit was then sent in to regain control. Officials said the troops did not carry firearms.

POOR CONDITIONS AND MISTREATMENT

Janabilova said overcrowding was a serious problem at the Granitny prison, and inmates had to take turns sleeping, with beds occupied in three shifts.

She argues that the protests are the result of problems that have built up over many years.

"Overcrowding, a shortage of prison staff who’ve been trained about human rights, frequent changes of management at the Committee for the Penal Correction System, a lack of professionalism among staff, and poor conditions – all these problems have reached a critical peak," she said.

Kuramshin said the protesters in different prisons across Kazakstan were voicing similar demands – "an end to torture, banning military-style practices not required by penal law, such as regular, exhausting marching both in hot weather and in temperatures of minus 40".

He said corruption among prison staff meant that inmates were denied entitlements like packages and meetings with relatives unless they paid bribes. Prisons in northern Kazakstan were the worst in this regard, he said.

"In the north of Kazakstan, they ask for money for everything, be it early release, prison visits or anything else," he said.

Kuramshin is a journalist from Petropavlovsk who turned to defending prisoners’ rights after doing time in jail, including in Akmola region. He received a sentence of nearly four years for libel, which is prosecuted under criminal law in Kazakstan.

Officials have responded to riots and other protests by saying prisoners are trying to avoid being bound by the basic regulations needed to run any penal institution. 

The deputy head of penal institutions in Almaty region, Irina Yakubova, said the incident in July in which inmates mutilated themselves was in protest at rules introduced by a new prison governor.

"They want to be able to play cards and visit each other,” she told reporters. “They just don't want the introduction of rules that are required by law."

Commenting on a recent riot at the Derzhavinka prison in Akmola region, the regional penal affairs chief Kanat Tumanov told journalists, "They don’t want to do two hours of work, to be on duty, to wash floors, or to observe the requirements and rules. They don’t like having to walk in columns."

Some alleged ringleaders have been prosecuted after incidents of this kind.

IWPR tried unsuccessfully to contact senior officials at the justice ministry’s Committee for the Penal Correction System for comment on several occasions. A written request sent to the committee’s spokesman, Galymjan Khasenov, was left unanswered after the prescribed time in which officials are required to give a response.

GOVERNMENT COMMITTED TO REFORM

Yet in general, the government has acknowledged there are problems in the prison system and promised to take action.

According to a report by the outgoing United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, the prison population in Kazakstan – at 60,000 according to official figures – is three times the average in Europe, and well above the numbers in other post-Soviet countries.

In a report following a May 2009 mission to Kazakstan, which was submitted to the UN Human Rights Council this March, Nowak said the use of torture and other forms of mistreatment went beyond isolated cases.

He recommended that national criminal legislation be amended to bring the definition of torture into line with that used in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and also to create an effective preventive mechanism and investigate allegations of mistreatment promptly and impartially.

The authorities have tried to respond to such criticisms. In September, the government invited Nowak to take part in the meeting to discuss how recommendations from his last year report are being implemented.

Moreover, recent official statements show a willingness to implement reforms of the judicial, law-enforcement and penal systems.

Speaking at a press briefing on November 11, the head of the Committee for the Penal Correction System, Sultan Kusetov, said changes to the law would result in the prison population being halved to 30,000. He was referring to a bill currently in parliament which will make penalties for certain offences less draconian, provide alterative penalties and decriminalise some minor offences.

Janabalina said that although the bill and the thinking behind it had been conceived well before the wave of trouble began, it might not be coincidental that President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed off on it in August.

"It’s possible the disturbances in penal institutions provided the impetus for more decisive action,” she said.

On the overcrowding problem, Kusetov said this would be resolved by the end of the year. Even now, he said, there was “virtually no overcrowding in any institution". Over the next five years, prisons would be refitted to meet international standards so that instead of large barrack-style dormitories housing between 20 and 100 inmates, smaller cells would be put in place.

This summer, the prison authorities ran a one-month campaign to reduce the incidence of corruption among guards, with seminars at which they were shown a new justice ministry-approved code of conduct.

ATTITUDES MUST CHANGE AMONG PRISON STAFF

Human rights activists have welcomed the government's reforms, but warn that improvements on the ground – most especially in the prisons where riots took place – will not happen until those immediately in charge change their ways. A desire for change at the top needs to translate into substantive measures to prevent prison administrators running institutions as if they were their own fiefdoms, and also to make sure they face sanctions if they continue doing so.

Kuramshin said prison administrations often refused to cooperate or be open with NGO representatives, and enjoyed a sense of impunity for alleged wrongdoing.

Mahambet Abjan, a former prisoner who worked with Kuramshin to publicise the riots and self-harm cases when news of them began leaking out, expressed frustration at the authorities’ failure to make changes.

"The response was limited… nothing has changed," he said.

Rights defenders like Abjan and Janabilova are calling for greater public scrutiny of Kazakstan’s prisons, in the shape of monitoring groups made up of human rights activists, journalists and relatives.

Janabilova noted that one case, following the Derzhavinka jail riot in July, did result in the prosecution of the prison governor, a number of his staff, and the deputy head of Akmola region’s penal affairs committee for torture and abuse of office. The trial is ongoing.

On November 26, a new group called Action Against Arbitrary Treatment, gave a press conference in Almaty at which it made recommendations for greater NGO involvement in monitoring the prison system, increased NGO participation in the National Mechanism to Prevent Torture, regular audits of the use of prison funds to be carried out by Kazakstan’s financial police, opportunities for prisoners to file complaints without hindrance, and easier access to the prisons for the media.

Artur Nigmetov is a journalist in Kazakstan. 

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.