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Kyrgyz Prison Misery

The Bishkek authorities are under pressure to improve atrocious conditions in the country's prisons
By Yrysbek Omurzakov

Inmates of Bishkek's CIZO No. 1 prison, packed into cells with little ventilation, no bedding and hardly any food, have threatened to go on hunger strike and slit their wrists if there is no improvement in their conditions.


They complain that the suffocating lack of oxygen in the cells has caused the deaths of two inmates and that a third has died of food poisoning.


The head of the Prisons department, General Bubel, has considered the situation serious enough to take personal control of the crisis, and improvements are under way.


Iron sheets fitted over the grilled windows for extra security have been taken down and Bubel says he is personally investigating the quality of the food.


But inmates are sceptical of major lasting improvements in the living hell of the 20,000 Kyrgyz incarcerated in their country's prisons.


At CIZO No. 1, a prison for the recently convicted, inmates are crammed into concrete cells with 50-cm thick walls and a tiny window with three thick grills. There are no mattresses or bedding. The prisoners sleep on iron bunks, each taking turns as there are three for every space.


Tuberculosis and venereal infections are rife and medical attention is minimal. Cells No. 244 and 245, which hold the tuberculosis victims, are located under the prison kitchens. In summer and in winter, they have the atmosphere of a gas chamber and are a breeding ground for the disease.


The food for prisoners is of poor quality. The bread is carried in open trolleys or bags that are used for other purposes.


Detainees can only receive parcels or packages once a month, although prison officials say there are no limitations on this privilege. There is only one point where the parcels can be handed in, and relatives of those incarcerated stand for hours, whatever the weather, under open skies, waiting for their surnames to be called out. Not everything contained in the parcel will make its way through to the prisoner. The staff are said to carry out "expropriations of non-earned incomes".


Any decent clothing or footwear is likely to disappear. If something "catches the eye" of one of the guards, he will inform fellow inmates that the item is required, and they will receive cigarettes, bread or narcotics in exchange for it.


There is a shower room, though without soap, razors or powder for washing. Prisoners have 15 minutes in which to wash themselves, though many refuse. The staff do not insist. Once a day inmates are taken out for exercise, and every prison has a walking cell. This is a cement room with high walls and a wire grill for a roof where prisoners are allowed 25-30 minutes exercise.


In the Temporary Holding Cells, THC, located at the militia barracks, conditions are often even worse. By law detainees can only be kept there for up to three days, although in reality, an investigator can hold a prisoner for as long as is needed to put a case against him together.


The suspect is often held without food and without the right to receive visitors. The food parcels handed over by friends and relatives seldom reach their destinations. An open form of barter is conducted between the suspects and the investigators. A suspect may be offered the choice between confessing to a crime or having a whole list of unsolved crimes pinned on him.


Investigators keep quantities of narcotics safely hidden in their safes. For a fix (a "lyap" is 0.5 to 0.8 grams of opium) an addict will confess to anything short of murder. That way the militia are able to keep crime clear up rates high, climb the career ladder and receive financial rewards.


Levels of guilt are often established according to the depth of the pockets of the suspect's relatives. Although many investigators do not receive their monthly pay packets of 700-800 som ($15-17) for months on end, some of them can be seen driving around in smart foreign-made cars.


Yrysbek Omurzakov is an editor of Tribuna newspaper in Bishkek. He spent some time in prison after allegedly slandering the president.


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