Prison Riot Sparks Political Row in Kyrgyzstan

The killing of a politician trying to end a prison rebellion raises questions about the link between politics and crime.

Prison Riot Sparks Political Row in Kyrgyzstan

The killing of a politician trying to end a prison rebellion raises questions about the link between politics and crime.

What began as a prison riot over poor conditions has escalated into a new bout of political unrest in Kyrgyzstan, with a demonstration in the capital Bishkek and claims and counter-claims of links between politicians and the underworld.

On October 22, an estimated 500 people turned out for a demonstration on Alatoo Square in the centre of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. The protesters called for action on the case of Tynychbek Akmatbaev, a member of parliament who was shot dead in a scuffle when he visited a prison the previous day to speak to protesting inmates. Many of them were relatives, supporters or constituents of Akmatbaev from the Issykkul region.

The late politician's brother Rysbek Akmatbaev led the demonstrators in calling for the resignation of Kyrgyz prime minister Felix Kulov, whom many blamed for Akmatbaev's death.

"This murder was prepared in advance. My brother should not have visited that prison camp - he was lured in there by lies. The people who attacked him were already expecting him," said Rysbek Akmatbaev.

Akmatbaev then made the explosive claim that Kulov was directly responsible for the killings – an allegation the prime minister denied vehemently.

"The most absurd accusations about my involvement in the killing have been voiced," Kulov told a hurriedly-convened press conference. "In this kind of situation, the main thing is to explain to the people who've come to the square that their actions are wrong."

The prime minister went on to suggest that protest organisers had an ulterior motive - to provoke renewed instability in Kyrgyzstan.

"Someone is trying to rock the boat….to show that there is no state authority, but they are deeply mistaken," he said. "This is not merely the emotions of grieving relatives; it's a well planned action."

As the day drew on, the protesters showed signs that they were there to stay. A truckload of mineral water, mobile toilet facilities and a traditional Kyrgyz tent or yurt were brought in. Demonstrators started a fire and cooked food in large pots.

As night fell, the protesters shifted to a smaller square in front of the parliament building one block away. Prayers were said for the late Tynychbek Akmatbaev, and those observing the Ramadan fast took an evening meal.

The crisis had begun with a series of riots over prison conditions, including one at a detention facility at Moldavanovka near Bishkek, which like most in this country is an prison camp rather than a jail.

Tynychbek Akmatbaev, in his capacity as chairman of the Kyrgyz parliament's committee for legal affairs, defence and law and order, visited Moldavanovka after going to another prison, at Pokrovka, to negotiate a solution to a rebellion there.

But while he was talking to prisoners, a gun was produced and he was shot dead together with Talasbek Omorov, an adviser to parliament, and Akmatbaev's bodyguard Khamid Alymkulov.

Three others in the negotiating team were injured in the fracas, including the head of Kyrgyzstan's penal authority, Ikmatulla Polotov, who is still in a coma.

The prison inmates refused to release the bodies of those killed, only doing so when Prime Minister Kulov arrived for further talks.

All high-security penal institutions have now been put on a state of high alert. Kyrgyzstan has 26 prison camps, 11 of them high-security.

"Personnel at the prison camps have been moved outside the perimeter for their own safety," Sergei Sidorov, a spokesman for the penal authority, told IWPR.

Visiting the Moldavanovka prison, IWPR contributors found that there were no staff inside the perimeter, but interior ministry troops armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing bulletproof jackets were patrolling outside. The main road into the camp was blocked off with heaps of stones.

Prison warders refused to comment on what had happened, referring IWPR to the authorities. However, one guard speaking on condition of anonymity took this reporter to one side to say, "We want there to be order in the camp. But right now the prisoners are dictating the terms.

"The government isn't going to do anything. We're afraid to go in as the prisoners are armed, and no one will pay compensation to our families if we get killed."

IWPR managed to speak to the protesting inmates by phone. One man who appeared to have been appointed spokesman gave their version of events,"We didn’t want a rebellion, just a strike where we'd refuse to leave our cells to draw the government's and president's attention to our problems. We hoped that now Kulov was prime minister he'd pay attention to us.

"But that didn’t happen. Instead, we got deputy Akmatbaev, whom we hadn't asked for. However, we still talked to him and it was OK.

According to this man, things went wrong when Akmataliev's bodyguard who produced a pistol during the talks. "We got scared and ran off at first, but then we were so angry that jumped them. One of them got whacked with a metal bar, another got shot with their gun. It's all wrong that we've got weapons. The authorities are just saying that so they can come in and sort us out."

At one level, the confrontation seems part of a campaign for better conditions in Kyrgyz jails, which few would deny are in need of improvement.

The Moldavanovka uprising was preceded by a rebellion on October 18 at the Pokrovka prison camp, 20 kilometres from Bishkek, during which two inmates accused of working as informers were killed by a mob. Again, the response was to shift all the prison guards outside the camp. Pokrovka is what is known here as a "strict-regime" camp and houses about 2,500 inmates regarded as especially dangerous.

A month and a half earlier, on September 1, there was a rebellion at a detention camp for young people in the village of Voznesenovka, west of Bishek in the Chuy region. The protesters demanded better conditions and more humane treatment.

When IWPR spoke to inmates by phone at Moldavanovka, they too insisted that their demands were only for improved treatment.

"The authorities have driven us to a this state by starving us," said the "spokesman" interviewed by IWPR. "They feed us on thin soup, millet soaked in water, or cabbage in water. We can't eat the bread as it's raw, not baked through. In this camp we're all ill with tuberculosis, there's no treatment and people are dying like flies. Sometimes they take two bodies away a day."

However, prison staff dispute claims of ill-treatment, saying the main problem is instead that discipline has grown too lax since control of the penal system passed from the interior ministry to the justice ministry in a 2002 reform.

"We believe that prison's prison and that most convicts don’t respond to normal humane treatment," said a senior prison officer who asked not to be named. "They need to be kept under the strict discipline that we had before. That's what happens when you treat them nicely – they've done in our boss [Polotov]."

After the killings, Kulov promised 10 million soms or 250,000 US dollars to improve the state of affairs in the prison system.

Some observers suspect that the unrest is a reflection of the wave of demonstrations seen in Kyrgyzstan this year.

"The situation in society at large has a direct impact on the situation inside the prison camps," said member of parliament Iskhak Masaliev.

Prisons spokesman Sidorov agreed, saying "it's all the result of what's going on outside, the mob instinct, and instability factors in the country".

While the murder of Akmatbaev looks like a confrontation which got out of hand, some observers claim it is no coincidence that it occurred in a prison which houses a convicted underworld figure, Aziz Batukaev, known to have been on bad terms with the politician's brother Ryspek Akmatbaev.

For their part, the Akmatbaev camp are claiming that Prime Minister Kulov, a former security minister and later opposition leader, was connected with Batukaev. The prime minister used his press conference to deny this explicitly, saying he met Batukaev only when he went in to the prison to negotiate the return of the bodies.

The mutual recriminations are likely to continue, whatever the truth that lies behind them.

But for some observers, the whole affair is symptomatic of the profound flaws in a society where the connections between politics and organised crime are often uncomfortably close.

According to Tolekan Ismailova, head of the non-government human rights group Citizens Against Corruption, says, "we have a systemic crisis in the penitentiary system, exacerbated by the fact that funding from underworld figures was used in the March revolution".

Now that the revolution is over, organised criminals seem to be undergoing the same process of redrawing spheres of influence and economic power that followed the ousting of President Askar Akaev. "This process is also under way in the criminal world, since they too have their unwritten laws, and their own spheres of influence," said deputy Tayirbek Sarpashev.

"Our leaders are well aware that the crime world and the authorities are in cahoots on certain matters, but that's seen as being in the natural order of things," added Communist Party leader Orozbek Duysheev. "We can see the consequences. Things shouldn’t be that way."

Aziza Turdueva is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL. Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor.

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