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Kygyzstan: Furore Over Crushing of Prison Revolt

State ombudsman hits out at bloody operation against rebellious prisoners.
By Leila Saralaeva

The authorities are facing stern domestic criticism for crushing a prison rebellion that broke out last month following a shooting incident that left four people dead, including a visiting parliamentary deputy.


The Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbay Bakir Uulu told journalists on November 2 that law-enforcement chiefs were wrong to order the storming of Prison No. 31 - close to the village of Moldovanovka, 37 kilometres from Bishkek - the day before.


According to official reports, four prisoners were killed in the operation, but human rights activists have suggested many more were seriously injured.


The operation seems to have triggered attempted break-outs at two prisons on the outskirts of Bishkek - claiming the lives of two inmates - and disturbances at several other penal institutions.


“As ombudsman, I demand from the justice ministry that they not only observe the rights of their employees, but also the rights of prisoners,” Bakir Uulu said at a press conference in the capital.


“I don’t understand why [the] prison needed to be stormed. If the president gave this order, it was the wrong decision.”


Prison No. 31 had been in the hands of inmates since October 20 when parliamentary deputy Tynychbek Akmatbaev, and two civil servants, were shot to death while inspecting conditions in the jail. A fourth person, the head of the penal authority, Ikmatulla Polotov, later died of his injuries.


The ombudsman’s criticisms have been echoed by prominent parliamentary deputy Melis Eshimkhanov.


“I’m not happy with the actions of the authorities. I’m afraid that law enforcement bodies overdid it with this special operation. If they’d wanted, this bloodshed could have been avoided,” he told IWPR.


The Kyrgyz leadership has, meanwhile, defended its decision to storm the prison, vowing that any future revolt will be dealt with in the same way.


“Bringing order to penal institutions is a natural process. A democratic nation cannot tolerate anarchy and lawlessness,” President Kurmanbek Bakiev said at a press conference, a day after the revolt was crushed.


The authorities claim the decision to launch the assault on Prison No. 31 came after 14 suspects in the October killings - including the alleged ringleader Aziz Batukaev - refused to give themselves up. Fourteen other suspects had been arrested in the immediate aftermath of the October 20 killings.


Officials say that the new head of the penal authority Kapar Mukeev was shot in the hand and attacked by fighting dogs as he attempted to negotiate the voluntary surrender of the remaining suspects.


Deputy Justice Minister Sergei Zubov said the incident prompted the assault on the prison building. A source in the penal authority said the special forces used large-calibre machine guns and grenade launchers to destroy makeshift barricades erected by the inmates.


The elite troops are then said to have seized inmates who had formed a human shield around a building in which Batukaev was holding out. The prisoners are said to have done so under his orders.


Mukeev told journalists that the alleged leader of the rebellion had in recent years lived a life of luxury within the jail, such was his apparent power and influence over corrupt prison staff.


He said Batukaev had converted three floors of a wing into a private office - complete with billiard room and sauna - where he lived with his wife and close relatives.


Mukeev also said Batukaev was allowed to breed fighting dogs and kept three three mares and 15 goats, providing him with a supply of fresh milk which he required for a stomach ulcer.


Special forces are said to have found a large number of firearms, knives, ammunition and drugs when they seized Batukaev’s prison headquarters.


“In recent years, Batukaev felt very free in prison, and completely ignored the rules of imprisonment,” said Mukeev.


Batukaev’s sister, Yakhya Batukaeva, described the assault on the prison as an outrage, insisting that the inmates had offered no resistance, and had been prepared to cooperate with the official investigation into the October 20 shootings.


She also rejected Mukeev’s description of her brother’s lavish life behind bars, saying that he lived modestly and worked in the interests of fellow prisoners.


“As a tidy person, he whitewashed and painted the room where he lived. Also, he built a mosque and church in the prison grounds. Was that a bad thing?” she asked.


Officials believe the seeds of the prison revolt were sown by a combination of worsening conditions and corrupt penal officials.


“Prisoners had nothing to do and were left to themselves. And to stop them from starving, their relatives were permitted to send them foods. As a result, a great deal of things could be brought into prison, including prohibited items,” said the deputy general prosecutor, Abibullo Abdykaparov.


According to Zubov, such a situation could only have emerged because of the “absolute corruption of the penal system”.


At his press conference, Bakir Uulu claimed that prison staff demanded bribes from inmates to meet their families and have food sent to them.


Tolekan Ismailova, the head of the human rights group Civil Society Against Corruption, said the crisis affecting the prison system stemmed from 15 years of official neglect.


She said that the morale of prison staff is so low that they are incapable of establishing order.


“They do not have any means of protection or uniforms,” she said. “Those who can afford it buy Chinese or Uzbek military fatigues, while the rest wear civilian clothes. They don’t have any social security insurance. According to our data, 58 have caught tuberculosis from prisoners and received no compensation. They have no trade unions to stand up for their rights.”


Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.


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