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Tajik Prison Revolt Sparks Abuse Allegations

Relatives allege leaders of a prison revolt were beaten and some possibly killed after an uprising in protest at conditions in jail.
By Valentina Kasymbekova

Relatives of inmates at a prison in southern Tajikistan are demanding information about their whereabouts and whether they have been tortured, after a rebellion over poor conditions.


In August, around 100 prisoners at the Kurgan-Tyube jail staged a rebellion to demand better conditions and food. The prison is a high-security unit, known as “strict-regime” here, and is the only one of its kind in Tajikistan.


In response, the authorities sent in a military unit whose members beat up prisoners involved in the protest action, according to relatives who visited the jail soon afterwards.


“Troops were brought into the prison to try to break the rebels,” said one of the relatives, who gave his name as Farhod, at a press conference the inmates’ families held in Dushanbe on October 12.


Several men slashed their wrists, in protest at the beatings.


Relatives say they learned that 38 men identified as the ringleaders were transferred to a detention centre in the capital Dushanbe on October 7.


They say they understand that their relatives have been tortured at the detention centre.


“All the prisoners who were taken to the [Dushanbe] jail were stripped naked and beaten with wooden mallets,” said Farhod.


The relatives fear that three of the men have died. They base their suspicions on having seen what appeared to be bodies being taken away from the detention unit, and on information from staff who work there.


At the press conference, family and friends of the 38 prisoners complained that they had been unable to find out from officials where the men were being held or how they were.


Three women at the press conferences said they had gone to Kurgan-Tyube prison to find out what had happened to their husbands, but were stopped at the gates, arrested and taken to a detention centre in the city, where they were held for 24 hours and beaten security forces.


The justice ministry’s penal affairs department and its detention centre in Dushanbe both deny that the Kurgan-Tyube prisoners are being held there.


However, the head of the operations office at the penal department, Khudomo Muborakkadamov, later confirmed to IWPR that 38 prisoners had indeed been moved to Dushanbe.


He denied that any prisoner had been beaten at Kurgan-Tyube.


The deputy head of the penal affairs department, Bahrom Abdulhakov, confirmed that the convicts had been moved, saying this was because they had violated prison regulations.


“No one will ever allow prisoners to dictate their conditions, including myself,” said Abdulhakov. “They turned the prison into a brothel – they wander around freely, bring in women, take drugs and drink vodka! And they call that poor conditions?"


Speaking to reporters, Abdulhakov was critical of the fact they attended the press conference given by the prisoners’ relatives. “You could have invited us, the opposition,” he said, referring to the justice ministry. “I would have answered all the questions asked by the relatives.”


Despite some reforms, officials admit that Tajikistan’s prison system is overcrowded and poorly provided-for.


The country’s jails, all built in the Soviet period, were designed to hold 7,000 inmates but currently house twice that number. That means there is only two to four square metres of floor space allocated to each inmate, and in reality the area can be even less.


“In all the years since we became independent, not one new prison has been built,” said Muborakkadamov. “Prisoners are mainly held in their cells, because we are unable to provide them with work - only about ten per cent of them work.”


The problems began in the early Nineties when civil war increased the prison population, and chronic under-funding led to cases where prisoners died of starvation. The situation has improved since then, but prison numbers remain high because of enduring poverty. Poor nutrition and overcrowding have contributed to high rates of infection, with tuberculosis rife.


In 2003, the penitentiary system was handed over from the interior ministry to the justice ministry, as part of the penal reforms recommended by the international community, but the change has yet to bring about a significant change in basic conditions.


International prison watchdog organisations say the state allocates around 1.5 somoni (about half a US dollar) to feed each inmate every day, but penal officials argue that prisoners are better fed than many people on the outside, in a country where living standards are low.


According to Muborakkadamov, one consequence of overcrowding is that minor offenders are held together with those convicted of serious crimes whereas in the past they would have been separated.


“Methods of persuasion or re-education don’t work any more, so the only thing left is to isolate the troublemakers from the rest. And that’s exactly what we’ve done, since the Kurgan-Tyube prison has no facilities for holding dangerous prisoners under a special regime,” said Muborakkadamov.


The Swiss Cooperation Office has been working with the government for four years to reform the prison system itself and help set up a probation service to stop people landing up in jail in the first place. Radik Nabiulin, who heads the penal reform project, told IWPR that “although conditions have improved significantly in recent years, a great deal more needs to be done to bring them even a little closer to international standards”.


Healthcare, in particular, is deficient. “About a third of the prisoners have tuberculosis, and there aren’t the proper arrangements to treat them exist. And the fact that it is impossible to isolate the sick from the healthy leads to a further spread of this serious disease,” said Nabiulin. “I have been to the Kurgan-Tyube jail, and I know that in summer, when it was terribly hot, there was no water there, which created unsanitary conditions. We financed a project to provide clean water, and I hope that conditions there have now improved.”


The relatives’ allegations of beatings and torture are consistent with a pattern of general abuse reported by local and international human rights groups.


The parents of one prisoner, Mahkamboy Gadoev, who is at the Kurgan-Tyube prison, say he is constantly being beaten by warders. They have been denied a meeting with the penal affairs department, but have received a written statement affirming that it was not possible to prove their son had been assaulted.


“In the jails and prison camps, the people - and although they’re criminals, they are still people – are treated worse than animals,” said the relative of one of the 28 prisoners, who asked not to be named. “Torture, punishment cells, and disgusting food – everyone goes through this, whether they’ve murdered someone or whether their offence was due to negligence or accident.”


This man said his relative had been in jail for two years for running over and killing a pedestrian accidentally.


The relatives are now drafting a letter to Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov citing their allegations of torture and asking him to ensure that inmates’ human rights are respected.


Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.