Moscow News: “In Kazakh jails, T is for torture”

The newspaper’s website reports the brutal situation facing prisoners in Kazakhstan and the recent visit by Joe Higgins, MEP, Socialist Party (CWI Ireland).

The article can be found here and below:

We quote Moscow News:

In Kazakh jails, T is for torture

by Lidia Okorokova at 23/09/2010 23:24, Moscow News

The OSCE office in Kazakhstan proudly proclaims its motto to comprise of 4 Ts: “trust, traditions, transparency and tolerance”. But Kazakh human rights activists complain that the country is fast becoming synonymous with another T: Torture.

Over 100 Kazakh prisoners have committed gruesome acts of self-mutilation in a desperate attempt to protest against widespread beatings and rapes at a number of prisons across the Central Asian republic.

The scandal over prison conditions could even threaten December’s OSCE summit in Astana, the Kazakh capital, as the country comes under the spotlight during its chairmanship of the 56-country Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Rights activists also say a failure by the OSCE to address prison torture would raise questions about whether European nations are more interested in human rights in Kazakhstan – or the country’s huge reserves of oil and gas.

Kazakhstan was controversially granted the rotating OSCE chairmanship for 2010 in a move that sought to highlight how democratic and open the country has become since 1991, but local activists say Western governments often give investment in the country a higher priority than human rights violations.

Speaking up

The situation in Kazakhstan’s prisons has gotten much worse in recent years, according to Vadim Kuramshin, a lawyer and prisoners’ rights activist.

“I’d say this is due to the changes made in 2003. [Prison guards] are not afraid of the Interior Ministry anymore, because now they report to the Justice Ministry,” he told The Moscow News.

Kuramshin has spearheaded a campaign against torture and maltreatment that prisoners face while serving their sentences.

He was shocked to hear how about 100 desperate inmates cut their stomachs open in August and eight more in September at a number of north Kazakhstan’s prisons to show their protest against brutal treatment.

Now Kuramshin, who himself served a prison sentence of three years for libel, has brought the issue to the OSCE’s attention via the media.

“It took me a long time, but at least Radio Liberty and the BBC have covered this matter and European MP Joe Higgins visited Kazakhstan,” he said.

Joe Higgins, a Socialist member of the European Parliament from Dublin, visited Kazakhstan in September to meet human rights activists and former prisoners discuss ways to help them.

Kuramshin was supposed to meet Higgins, but he was detained by the police for ten days after being attacked and charged with assault – a common practice against protesters, local activists say.

“I never met with Joe, but still he got all the information I had. My detention doesn’t do any credit to the Kazakhstan government, does it?”

Prisoners hung up

Protesters hope that media publicity will help to secure prison reforms in Kazakhsta, and point to the situation inn Russia, where things improved after NGOs started reaching out to prisoners.

Alexander Krivoruchko, 23, who served seven years in a number of Kazakh prisons, told Higgins about what it was like to do time in a place where violent abuse was part of the system.

Higgins told The Moscow News of the horrors he had learned about on his trip.

The prison regime at Granitny detention center northern Kazakhstan, for instance, “was designed so that prisoners were very frightened of the administration. There, the prisoner, whatever he does should be tired of everything – tired of being beaten, tired of being made to dig holes all day, tired of being given tasks. This was real Nazism.”

Another former prisoner, Azamat Dautov, 24, said that prison guards, in order to make him “agree with the regime,” would hang him from the ceiling and beat him for hours.

Russia’s view

Ahead of December’s summit, the allegations about prison torture are likely to bring Western countries into conflict with Russia, which has been arguing for years that the OSCE should restrict its role to promoting security and economic cooperation – and stay out of the human rights sphere.

Moscow has slammed the OSCE for its knuckle-rapping attitude on human rights issues, a policy that it sees as “contrary to the principle of a comprehensive approach to security in Europe”.

“There is a serious imbalance in this area, over-concentration on one of the areas – humanitarian, and with increased attention mainly to the CIS countries,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry says in a statement posted on its website.

It’s not surprising that Russia is pushing the defence agenda to draw attention away from humanitarian issues, Higgins said.

“The problem is that many Western governments and big multinational companies in Europe have lucrative agreements for oil and gas with the Kazakhstan government. And that is why I think they gave the chairmanship to Astana. It’s about trade and profit. And this is very cynical,” Higgins told The Moscow News.

“We should insist to the European governments that they do not give way to the idea that human and democratic rights should somehow go into the background,” he added.

Higgins and the working group in the European parliament will hold a protest to highlight the abuses and brutality in the Kazakh prisons in October, during Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to Brussels.

“We also talked to the United Nations human rights rapporteur – he will be visiting Kazakhstan in the following weeks. The issue will be raised by the European ministers at the summit in December too.”

Russian prison reforms

Russia faced very similar problems involving torture and brutality in prisons, but human rights activists have managed to improve the situation. Valery Borshchev, a member of a number of NGOs, including the For Human Rights movement, noted a “positive tendency” in Russian prisons.

Borshchev, a member of the liberal Yabloko party, helped introduce a law on public control over the treatment of prisoners that was successfully adopted by the State Duma in 2008.

“Around five years ago, human rights activists from Kazakhstan told us that we were way behind them on prisoners’ rights in Russia,” Borshchev said. “But we have public leverage now.”

Kuramshin, meanwhile, says local Kazakh NGOs are not proactive enough in fighting prison brutality. “Those NGOs get funded by Soros and the government and that is why they never report on what is happening to the prisoners,” he says.

Still, Elena Gordeyeva of the Prison and Freedom NGO, which promotes criminal justice reform in Russia, told The Moscow News that there are egregious cases of prisoners’ abuse here, but “we are fighting with this.”

She and Nina Tagankina from the Moscow Helsinki Group said that they have never heard of such desperate mass protests among prisoners in Russia.

“Thankfully, it’s never happened on such a big scale here,” Tagankina said.

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September 2010