Unprecedented Torture Trial in Kazakstan

Prison warders prosecuted in watershed case.

Unprecedented Torture Trial in Kazakstan

Prison warders prosecuted in watershed case.

Defendants accused of torture are driven away from the Zarechny prison after the trial court spent a day cross-examining inmates brought as prosecution witnesses. (Photo: Alexei Smirnov)
Defendants accused of torture are driven away from the Zarechny prison after the trial court spent a day cross-examining inmates brought as prosecution witnesses. (Photo: Alexei Smirnov)
The Zarechny prison camp. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)
The Zarechny prison camp. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)
Tuesday, 15 February, 2011

The first ever trial of prison officers accused of torturing an inmate has been hailed as a success for groups that monitor Kazakstan’s penal system. 

On February 7, court hearings resumed in the state’s case against five prison officers and four inmates entrusted with supervisory roles in the Zarechny prison camp near Almaty in southeast Kazakstan. All face charges of torturing 27-year old Jandos Sagatov, who is serving a sentence for drug dealing. 

Trial proceedings, which began on January 18 and are being held at a court in the nearby town of Kapshagai, shifted to the Zarechny prison for this third session so as to allow cross-examination of prosecution witnesses drawn from the prison population.

Ardak Janabilova, who chairs the Public Commission for Human Rights Monitoring in Prisons in Almaty City and Region, recalls how the case first came to the attention of her non-government group, one of 15 providing external scrutiny of prisons in each region of Kazakstan.

In March 2010, Janabilova and other colleagues went to the Zarechny prison after an inmate tipped them off about an assault there.

“When we arrived, Jandos Sagatov was already in the prison infirmary. We identified numerous marks of beatings,” she said.

Sagatov underwent a series of major operations and is still under observation at the Kapshagai town hospital.

Janabilova’s commission reported the case to the prosecutor general’s office, adding to a complaint that Sagatov had filed himself. It also publicised the case in the media.

Sagatov’s lawyer Gaukhar Salimbaeva described how initially, prosecutors brought charges against the staff under the general clause of “exceeding one’s authority”, and grievous bodily harm in the case of the accused prisoners. In July, however, prosecutors strengthened both sets of accusations to the specific offence of torture, which carries a prison term of five to ten years.

Janabilova says this is a precedent-setting test case, successfully brought to trial through “a common effort by the public and the prosecution service”.

“Corruption has always been the main obstacle standing in the way of holding penal system staff to account,” she said.

Bribery is rife in the justice and penal system, and police, judges and others are reluctant to take action against their colleagues.

Vadim Kurmashin, a human rights activist in the northern city of Petropavlovsk, welcomed news of the court case, saying, “It is very gratifying that the public monioring committee took a firm stand on the Jandos Sagatov case. It’s the first time that those [allegedly] culpable have been held to account.”

Kurmashin claims that torture takes place in every penal facility in Kazakstan, and wants to see all such cases exposed as a matter of course so that prison staff never get away with it. All too often, he says, charges are not brought when allegations of torture and assault are made, and even if they are, they get dropped later on.

Both Kuramshin and Janabilova argue that physical mistreatment of prisoners and corruption within Kazakstan’s prisons are closely linked, and jointly contribute to a systemic resistance to external scrutiny.

According to Janabilova, prisoners who fail to pay up when warders extort money are liable to be mistreated and denied entitlements like packages and visits.

Poor conditions were highlighted by a series of protests in prisons across the country last year, when inmates mutilated themselves by slashing their stomachs. (See Kazak Prison Riots Highlight Poor Conditions.)

Rights activist Mahambet Abjan, a former prisoner, says many prison staff feel immune from the consequences of abuse, because pressure groups are not strong enough to challenge the system, and because prisoners fear reprisals if they complain.

“Civil society must be strong. Only then can corruption, torture and other forms of violence in prisons be uprooted,” Abjan said. “Convicts fear for their lives and endure torture in silence.”

A senior official with the government’s s in the Committee for the Penal Correction System, part of the justice ministry, acknowledged that torture and corruption exist, but insisted that they were by no means widespread and that the authorities were working to end them.

“I don’t think inmates are tortured in all prisons. It’s very rare,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He pointed to the Sagatov case, saying it showed how the alleged culprits had been identified and brought before a court.

“As for corruption,” he continued, “I can say we have identified cases among the management and staff of prison camps, and they have all faced penalties.”

Artur Nigmetov is a journalist in Kazakstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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