Prosecutors in Kazakhstan have confirmed that at least six people detained during the unrest in January died as a result of torture at the hands of police officers.
Rizabek Ozharov, a top official at the General Prosecutor’s Office, told government newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda in an interview published on February 23 that his office was investigating cases concerning the “use of prohibited investigation methods” – a euphemism for torture – against people arrested on suspicion of involvement in last month’s turbulence.
“According to our information, two people died under such circumstances at [the detention center] in Almaty, three in the East Kazakhstan Region, and one person in Taldykorgan,” he said.
Ozharov, who heads his department’s special prosecutors’ office, confirmed that one surviving torture victim, Azamat Batyrbayev, a resident of Taldykorgan, the capital of the Almaty region, was scalded with a red-hot clothes iron. Batyrbayev is alive, but still under arrest.
While admitting that torture was inflicted, Ozharov insisted that the practice was not widespread. That is at odds with what is being conveyed by Elvira Azimova, the State Commissioner for Human Rights, who has said there are around 200 open investigations into claims of torture and violations of detainees’ rights.
Rights activists and relatives of detainees say that the allegations of torture are coming from people who have been released from custody, but that many are refraining from sharing their stories out of fear of possible reprisals. Those still in custody are all but unable to share their stories.
The details that are trickling out are shocking. One of the detainees, Sayat Adilbekuly, who has been released on his own recognizance, told journalists in early February that he witnessed police officers beating wounded prisoners until they lost consciousness and that they poured boiling water over one of them. Batyrbayev's body is a terrifying physical testimony to the brutal treatment that he received.
Orda, a news website, on February 17 reported allegations of detainees at a police precinct in Taldykorgan being sodomized with truncheons. That story was based on accounts collected by local human rights activist Viktor Ten.
The Interior Ministry, under whose auspices the police operate, has denied this accusation and threatened anybody disseminating what they term as “false information” with criminal action.
This punitive approach to dealing with torture allegations is in danger of becoming the norm.
On February 13, Vladimir Prokopyev, a resident of Shchuchinsk in the northern Akmola region, went to his local town hall carrying a clothes iron to be given as a gift to the president – a grim satirical nod to the implement’s alleged use as an instrument of torture. The police arrested him and charged him with violating public assembly laws. Prokopyev faces a 150,000 tenge ($345) fine or a 20-day stretch in jail.
Others have taken a more conservative approach, publishing videos online to address President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev with pleas to put a stop to torture.
Tokayev seems to have got the message to some extent. In an interview with state television channel Qazaqstan on February 17, Tokayev said he had instructed the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Ministry to take action and bring all the perpetrators to justice.
“Human rights are a very important priority for me. You could say they are the most important one at the moment,” he said.
The General Prosecutor’s Office has been sending mixed signals on this point. Yeldos Kilymzhanov, deputy head of the criminal prosecutions service, insisted at a February 21 briefing that an inspection of conditions for detainees held in relation to the January events revealed no evidence of torture. That was in stark contrast with what his own colleague told Kazakhstanskaya Pravda.
“Mainly the complaints from detainees were to do with the temperature in their cells, and how difficult it was to get parcels and organize meetings with relatives and other people,” Kilymzhanov said.
Kilymzhanov also said that detainees were visited by rights activists, lawmakers and representatives of independent NGOs – a point he appeared to argue confirmed his case, although he did not seem to allow for the possibility that those visitors were simply not shown the allegedly tortured detainees.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.