At 11.00 am on 7 September, hours after a delegation from the European Parliament United Left Group led by Joe Higgins had left the country, the prison rights campaigner, Vadim Kuramshin, was released from prison in the town of Kokshetau, in the North of Kazakhstan.
Vadim was arrested on 29 August as he was leaving the town to meet with Joe Higgins. Outside the bus station an unknown assailant attacked Vadim, who was then arrested by two police standing nearby for “hooliganism” and sentenced to ten days in prison.
As a result of the campaign by the CWI, hundreds of protest letters were sent to the authorities. Awkward questions were asked by Joe Higgins when he met with the representatives of the OSCE, EU and Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry when he visited the country. Such was the fall-out from the crude and violent efforts to stop Vadim meeting Joe Higgins, the episode was reported internationally, including by Radio Liberty and reportedly even staff at the American Embassy in Kazakhstan got on the phone to find out what was happening.
Vadim intended to meet Joe Higgins to inform him about the serious situation in the prisons, particularly in northern Kazakhstan. So bad are conditions, prisoners, in protest at the violence and conditions they face, have adopted a horrific form of protest; they slice open their own stomachs. In the latest of these acts, 38 prisoners in a prison Granitny village, near Kokshetau, participated in this form of protest. The regime responded by sending in riot troops!
The attempts to silence Vadim have, however, backfired badly. Relatives of those held in Granitny prison, as well as former prisoners, rallied round Vadim and travelled, sometimes thousands of kilometers, to meet Joe Higgins during his visit. They gave harrowing accounts of torture, mistreatment and rape in the prisons. They asked Joe for help in raising these injustices internationally and in getting access to their relatives. Up to 30 more former prisoners had agreed to come to meet Joe, but they received phone threats warning them off meeting the socialist MEP. Those who did met Joe reported they had received phone calls, with barely veiled death threats, if they dared to speak out.
On return journey through Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, Joe Higgins met with representatives of the OSCE, EU and the ambassador of Kazakhstan responsible for human rights, where Vadim’s case, the cases mentioned above and other issues were raised. Joe demanded guarantees of security for those who met Joe and this delegation. The response from the ministry was that ‘progress’ was being made and that Joe only wanted to show the negative side of Kazakhstan!
A prisoner who sliced open his stomach in protest at brutal jail conditions in Kazakhstan
Head of prison meets with representatives of Joe Higgins
Following this meeting, members of Joe’s delegation accompanied prisoners’ relatives to visit the City and National Police and later the department responsible for managing the prisons. On arriving at the latter, security forcibly removed a TV crew accompanying Joe’s delegation. But, no doubt concerned about scandal developing out of control, the head of the country’s prison service arrived to discuss with the delegation. Within an hour, the sister of one of Granitny’s prison victims had located her brother (she had been travelling the country for 30 days looking for him before this) and another victim, currently being framed as ringleader of the prison revolt, has been promised medical treatment. (See report on http://stan.tv/news/17297/)
However, as the evidence given to Joe by prisoners’ relatives indicates, this is only the very tip of a very nasty iceberg. Joe has promised to launch an international campaign to raise the prison conditions issue, starting with a press conference in Strasbourg on the 8 September.
On leaving prison, Vadim was in a good and decisive mood. He said: “I am grateful to all those who supported the campaign of solidarity, and to the European Deputy Joe Higgins, thanks to whom they kept me in reasonable conditions and avoided new provocations. Actually, my arrest has backfired on them, as it has raised the issue of the rights of prisoners in the country. We have no intention of sitting back now and folding our arms, but will now step up our campaign.”
Harassment against trade unionists has continued since Joe left the country. A delegation of oil workers from Aktyubinsk, who travelled over 2,000 kilometers to meet Joe, were attacked by an unknown assailant as they left a train carriage. Rather than arrest the assailant, the visiting trade unionists were detained by police and released after a few hours later.
[Further reports of Joe Higgins’ visit to Kazakhstan will appear on socialistworld.net].