New Wave of Prison Rebellions in Kazakstan

Rights activists say conditions haven’t improved despite recent convictions of warders found guilty of torture.

New Wave of Prison Rebellions in Kazakstan

Rights activists say conditions haven’t improved despite recent convictions of warders found guilty of torture.

Prisons in Kazakstan have been rocked by a second wave of protests by prisoners in a matter of months. While rights activists say the unrest reflect the brutality of prison conditions, the authorities accuse convicts of creating trouble to extract more privileges. 

After riots in several prisons last year, the authorities prosecuted seven warders for torture. But prison rights activists say the country still has a long way to go to root out endemic abuses in its penal system.

The latest series of protests began on June 11 at a facility near Dolinka in the Karaganda region, where two inmates climbed onto the roof of the punishment block and threatened to set fire to themselves.

Prisoners’ rights activist Vadim Kuramshin said the men had been repeatedly beaten by prison staff, and officials and doctors had refused to do anything about it.

They were eventually persuaded to give up when officials from Kazakstan’s central penal system department, known as KUIS, arrived at the jail and talked to them.

A spokesman for the department, Galymjan Khasenov, said the men “admitted they were at fault and came down; they were not punished”.

This incident coincided with a failed jailbreak at another Karaganda region prison, near Balkhash. According to the justice ministry, which runs the prison system, 16 inmates died when they detonated an oxygen canister as a riot squad arrived to prevent the escape.

On June 20, an inmate at a high-security prison in Zarechnyi in the eastern Almaty region tried to commit suicide, and 20 others staged a protest, two of them inflicting cuts on themselves.

“The convicts were angry about the inhuman conditions in which they were held,” Kuramshin said. “A group of prisoners with AIDS had tried to complain about the poor food rations and also about the lack of the required medical treatment.”

The deputy head of KUIS for Almaty region, Irina Yakubova, accused those involved of trying to bully the authorities into making concessions.

“The convicts are trying to dictate terms,” she said. “They’re unhappy with the prison conditions – they want a softer regime and for restrictions on receiving parcels to be lifted. They use obscene language against prosecution service and KUIS staff. These are mundane things that take place in every prison.”

Four days later, the wives of inmates at a prison near the town of Granitny in the central Akmola region told journalists that their husbands had been badly beaten by guards.

KUIS responded to the claims by saying all that happened was that prison officers handcuffed a number of convicts who were about to riot. The statement said the confrontation began when guards conducted a routine search and seized sharp objects, blades and mobile phones.

Spokesman Khasenov protests were commonly associated with raids on cells. “When our staff start confiscating banned items, the inmates don’t like it and they try to stage provocations. It’s at these times that they create a furore, drawing in their relatives, NGOs and journalists.”

However, the trial of prison officers that followed six months of protests at the Zarechny, Dolinka and other facilities last year suggest the latest allegations of brutality may have some substance. 

On June 29, seven prison warders were convicted of using torture and other abuses against 24 inmates at the Zarechny prison. The sentences ranged between three and five years. 

Despite these watershed convictions, human rights groups say the authorities have failed to implement systemic changes to end the mistreatment of prisoners.

Kuramshin believes the trials have not had the salutary effect that might have been expected, and insists he has evidence that torture in the prison system is as widespread now as it was before.

“It won’t go away until NGOs and the public are given access to prisons,” he added.

The father of an inmate at the Derzhavinka prison said he feared that guards there would seek “revenge” for the convictions, and that his son would suffer.

Rights groups say the government has been slow to move on a key anti-torture reform, the “National Preventive Mechanism” under which independent experts would be able to visit any place of detention at any time, without advance notice or limitations on their movements.

All countries that sign the optional protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment are required to introduce such a mechanism no more than a year after ratification, which in Kazakstan’s case happened in 2008.

Amnesty International’s latest annual report for Kazakstan notes that in February 2010, the government postponed the creation of the National Preventive Mechanism for up to three years, but that it was working to develop the legal framework for it, and had reiterated its position of “zero tolerance on torture”.

Rights activist and blogger Dmitry Schelokov accuses the government of dragging its feet on a system of unrestricted inspections.

“This regime, like any other authoritarian and repressive regime, has no need of it [preventive mechanism], because it would undermine its capacity to intimidate the population and break opposition members in prison,” he said.

Zauresh Battalova, head of the Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarianism, said that while the government has long promised to make the penal system more humane, this has yet to translate into substantive reforms on the ground.

One positive change was that the public was much more aware of problems in the prison system, Battalova said, adding that now that prisoners were allowed to make prepaid phone calls, “they feed information to the outside, where it is disseminated via social networking websites”.

Artur Nigmetov is a reporter for the Kazak service of RFE/RL.

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