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Kulov Faces Grim Incarceration

Kyrgyz opposition leader Felix Kulov faces the grim prospect of seven years behind bars in notorious Prison 19
By IWPR Central Asia

This week a Kyrgyz military court is due to hear an appeal lodged by Felix Kulov, leader of the opposition Ar-Namys party, who is seeking to overturn his conviction in January for abusing his position while serving as national security minister in 1997 and 1998.


Should his appeal fail, Kulov faces a seven year jail sentence in Prison 19, a remote institutions housing ex members law-enforcement agencies and ordinary prisoners.


Elsewhere in the region, the former are housed in separate specialist jails known as Red Zones, which date from Soviet times and were devised to protect imprisoned law enforcement personnel from reprisals by other, potentially vengeful inmates.


But the jails were outside Kyrgyzstan and efforts by the post-independence government to set-up an equivalent facility within the republic have been wracked with problems.


A Red Zone wing was introduced in Prison 19, but was closed down after an outbreak of tuberculosis. While the 69 special category inmates are now kept in separate cell, they eat and engage in other activities with the other prisoners.


Deputy Chief of the Prisons' Directorate Vladimir Nosov admits former law-enforcement employees should be kept separately from other inmates, but he says the government does not have the resources to maintain such a facility.


"The situation in this labour-correction facility is very hard compared to other facilities, " said Nosov." Only 10 soms (20 US cents) is allocated per day from the state budget to feed each prisoner."


Prison 19's furniture factory, which provided work for the inmates and money for the facility, was burned down in a riot in 1989. Another riot in March 2000 over poor food rations prompted the chief of the prisons' directorate, Grigoriy Bubel, to visit the facility. He put in place a new management team under the leadership of Bayish Tashtekeev.


Tashtekeev says he was worried when he heard Red Zone prisoners were to be sent to the facility. "On the very first day, I ordered a sheep to be slaughtered according to the Kyrgyz custom," the governor recalled. " All the prisoners were invited and sat together. I appealed to them not to be at war, but to treat each other as brothers and to help each other in difficult moments."


A former detective, convicted of passing drugs to a man in custody, said the Red Zone prisoners just need to know how to behave with their fellow inmates.


"If I started behaving arrogantly as a former police official the prisoners would give me hard time - that would be the end," he said. "We don't touch them and do nothing to provoke a conflict. But at the same time, we musn't behave like scared cats - that too would be bad. They would immediately start putting pressure on us."


Twice a day, every day, the governor lines up all the prisoners and asks them what they need. Tashtekeev knows at once who's sick, who's been involved in arguments and so on. "God forbid we have a riot here," he said. "The guards would radio us at once, but by the time we got here it would be too late."


No distinction is made between the Red Zone and ordinary prisoners. There are no prison uniforms. Inmates wear their own clothes. One man was wrapped up well against the winter in a heavy leather jacket and snug hat. But another less fortunate inmate was wearing torn sandals and a ripped T-shirt.


Tashtekeev says the official daily food ration is 24 soms and 60 tiyins (about 50 US cents) per prisoner. In reality, he admits, even such scanty resources are beyond the prison's budget.


"If we were given this money in full," said Tashtekeev, "we wouldn't worry about anything else. Now we have to produce food ourselves. We've planted tomatoes, potatoes and cabbage. At the moment we still have about one month's supply of food. I hope we'll finally get the money from the budget before we run out of our reserves.


Tatiana, wife of one of the Red Zone prisoners, said, "The inmates are fed three times a day. Most of the time they get tasteless porridge and watery soup. Meat is provided very rarely. They're given just enough to stave off starvation."


The mother of another inmate was in tears after visiting her son. A young boy tried to comfort her, saying, "You saw yourself, he's okay." But the woman sobbed, "How can he be OK when he has lost so much weight - only his eyes are left..."


But some prison staff complain inmates are better off than employees. One guard, who wished to remain anonymous, said, "They don't have to worry about what to eat tomorrow. They eat hot food three times a day, while, sometimes, our families are not able to eat soup or other hot food even once a day.


"Our salary is between 800 and 1,500 soms (between $16 and $30), but often we have to wait months even to be paid this. Sometimes our families even have to go without bread."


Cholpon Orozobekova is a regular IWPR contributor


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