Kazakhstan: Cracks appear in prison regime

Organised protest action shakes Kazakhstan authorities

Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, was in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan this week. He visits regularly, to assess what is going on in the country’s prisons and to train human rights activists and the prison authorities, to prevent torture being used against prisoners. When Joe Higgins, Socialist Party MEP for Dublin and a member of the CWI, was in the country at the start of September, he requested a meeting with a representative of the Kazakh government to express his concern and anger about the arrest of human rights activist Vadim Kuramshin, which happened to "coincide" with Joe Higgins visit.

Despite the government’s attempts, however, Joe was able to meet with ex-prisoners who testified about the torture and mistreatment they have experienced while imprisoned.

At a meeting with a representative of the country’s foreign ministry, Joe Higgins confronted her about the situation. From the icy tone of the meeting, it was obvious that the government did not agree. They referred to Manfred Nowak´s March 2010 report, and claimed that that Joe Higgin’s findings contradicted Mr Nowak´s findings, who they claimed was allegedly satisfied with the progress made in the prisons.

However, while Professor Nowak’s report agree that some progress had been made in comparison to his former visits he also explicitly raised a number of doubts about the prison situation and what his "free and unannounced" access to the prisons meant in reality.

Now Mr Nowak´s patience with the Kazakhstan government seems to have run out. In video footage shown on Stan TV, Professor Nowak says: "My visit, thanks to the Kazakhstan authorities, ended up being a long winded excursion, which I did not want. They tried to keep from me the real truth about how prisoners live. I had to break through a wall of lies to get to the real information. They tried to play a game of cards with me. But I will tell what I actually think in my report to the UN".

According to the report on Stan TV: “The authorities carefully prepared for the visit. In some prisons the paint had not even dried. The doors and windows had been painted just before the visit. Prisoners in the Karaganda women’s prison were not allowed to sleep on their beds in the run up to the visit in case they stained the sheets. This didn’t prevent a number of them, including a number of under-age prisoners from complaining to the foreign visitor about torture and the way in which the prison administration humiliate them.”

Images of prisoners with self-inflicted wounds, taken with a mobile phone in August


This breakthrough has happened because of the work of Vadim Kuramshin, the Kazakhstan 2012 movement and of Joe Higgins (Joe has been in correspondence with Mr Nowak after coming back from Kazakhstan).

The Kazakhstan authorities have tried to pull the wool over the eyes of visiting foreign delegations. In the case of the prisons, they have appointed a whole number of “human rights observers” whose job is apparently to monitor the situation in the prisons and give the prisoners an avenue to complain about their treatment. With one or two honorable exceptions, these people have worked hand in hand with the prison authorities, covering up the scale of this summer’s prison protests (when in a number of prisons groups cut their own stomachs open in protest at conditions). These “human rights observers” put the case for the prison authorities by claiming the protests were made by prisoners demanding not to have to work and to get better food. They have just sat on prisoners complaints, rather than, as they are supposedly required by law to do, investigate them.

Naturally these people at the seminar in Astana this week were not keen for either Vadim or any of the relatives to present their case to Mr Nowak. Nowak heard about the torture in the prisons during the training seminar for human rights activists. A number of relatives of those in the prisons who, in their words, had been beaten in the Astana prison ETs 166/10 attempted to meet with Mr Nowak.

Mr Nowak is preparing his report on the conditions in the Kazkahstan prisons for the UN, to be presented in the spring of next year. According to him, he will give an objective assessment of what is happening.

The Chair of the Seminar, a Yuri Gusukov, tried to cut Vadim’s presentation short. But due to Vadim’s persistence, and the determination of the relatives, at least some of the cases did get heard. Now Professor Nowak, according to Stan TV, has called for the establishment of “an independent human rights organisation” in Kazakhstan.

“Organised struggle gets results”

Clearly the Kazakhstan authorities are shaken. Vadim reports today that for the first time in several years, a new prisoner, Aibakarov Rezvan, entering the Prison Colony IK 90, was not beaten on arrival.

This prison has a reputation as having a particularly brutal regime, with every newcomer being put through several days of torture (hanging from ceilings, beatings, threats of and sometimes actual rape and other brutal acts) before themselves having to take part in the torture of other newcomers.

As a result of the scandal in the Kazakhstan and international media, Rezvan, on his arrival at the prison, was not beaten and did not even have a finger laid on him.

Vadim comments: “This demonstrates the need to be organised and to fight in co-operation with other social movements and activists, rather than on one’s own. There’s no point in justifying one’s own inaction, by saying that opposition is pointless because the government is too strong. Organised struggle gets results. This example demonstrates that, but now we have to ensure that this is not a one off case but becomes the norm. If we change ourselves, we can change the world about us. What begins in our brain can be turned into reality, we will fight against our government and against the prison authorities in the only way they understand – by showing them that together we are strong.”

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October 2010