Kyrgyzstan’s Prison Strike: Crime and Politics Bunking Together?
Up to 10,000 prisoners, including inmates in all of Kyrgyzstan’s 11 prisons and six detention centers, have joined a hunger strike that began on March 25, media reports cite officials as saying. But why are the prisoners suddenly up in arms?
Prison brass attribute the protest to a high-profile crackdown on organized crime, launched last month after President Roza Otunbayeva, speaking to regional leaders, bemoaned the influence of the criminal world on local government.
“Criminal groups have become a powerful force, able in some regions to dictate ‘the rules of the game’ to local authorities,” she said February 5. “If this continues, then tomorrow criminal groups will be appointing provincial governors and other officials.”
A rash of arrests came fast and furious on the heels of Otunbayeva’s comments -- 118 as of March 17 -- but they have stirred more skepticism than awe. Prominent public figures have linked the sweeps to presidential elections slated for this October, with some calling the anti-crime campaign a PR stunt, while others allege it is part of a proxy war between competing factions in parliament.
One parliament deputy, speaking privately after the start of the anti-crime drive, said links between politicians and criminal groups ran rife, describing in detail how a leading national politician from the country’s north is trying “to clean out other criminal gangs to clear the way for his own, especially in the south.”
(A top prosecutor, meanwhile, contended that it was in fact southerners – namely, supporters of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev – who were fomenting unrest in the prisons.)
So far the crackdown on “OPGs” -- the Russian abbreviation for “organized crime groups” -- has focused overwhelmingly on the network of one alleged kingpin, Kamchy Kolbayev. According to Kyrgyzstan’s chief criminal investigator, Tilek Alibayev, of 80 OPG members arrested within three weeks of Otunbayeva’s speech, most belonged to Kolbayev’s network.
Top-ranking prison officials have said that both the hunger strike and some earlier disturbances in the country’s prisons were carried out on Kolbayev’s orders. First deputy head of the State Penitentiary Service, Kalybek Kachkynaliyev, told journalists that “prisoners demand no one touch members of organized crime groups and Kamchy Kolbayev.”
Even in Soviet times, criminals who attained kingpin status -- known as “thieves in law” -- had powerful support networks inside and outside the prison system. Nowadays, in local lore at least, this status has grown to include all the ostentation of post-Soviet nouveaux riches. A columnist for Vecherny Bishkek, one of the city’s most widely read newspapers, wrote recently that a videotape shown in parliament some years ago featured the life of one kingpin behind bars: He had a separate barracks, his girlfriend by his side, weapons and, on Independence Day, hosted a lamb roast and dog fights.
The latest hunt for Kolbayev began in February. Officials can’t seem to agree on the details, but the general storyline is that Kolbayev’s early release from prison -- in 2005, according to a presidential spokesman, or in 2009, according to the Interior Ministry -- had been “illegal” and now he is again a wanted man.
“The penitentiary system pulled up the files on Kamchy Kolbayev. It turned out that, by law, he did not serve the sentence he was supposed to. However, in 2009 he got early release,” Alibayev, the top police investigator, told KyrTAG news agency on February 24. “The court decision [to release him] was made with violations of the law. Currently, a criminal case is being opened into his release, and the illegal court decision […] is being overturned.” (One local website reported earlier this month that Kolbayev had been arrested, but that has not been confirmed elsewhere.)
Meanwhile, relatives of the prisoners have been picketing parliament, saying the protest is against poor conditions in prisons and demanding an amnesty. Rights defenders have articulated a list of seven demands on the prisoners’ behalf. These include stopping the arrests of suspects without sufficient evidence and an end to the use of torture to extract confessions. They also demanded that the state reform its justice system and improve conditions in the filthy, disease-infested prisons. Two inmates with tuberculosis have died since the protests began, although prison officials say this was not a result of the hunger strike.
For now, the problems raised by the activists are sitting on a back burner.
Police have been busy basking in media glory. On March 17, on the outskirts of Bishkek, investigators nabbed a man believed to have served for four years as Kolbayev’s “bank.” At the man’s apartment, according to a report from 24.kg, they found about $20,000, all matter of weapons -- from guns to hand grenades -- and 2.5 kilos of drugs, including one package neatly marked “To my brother Kamchy.” Interior Minister Zarylbek Rysaliev showed up at the scene personally and was indignant to discover other gifts intended for the crime boss, purportedly sent over from his fans at Prison No. 1. These included handmade tables, chairs, backgammon sets and two “thrones” with a carved wolf head on each armrest. “Where is the prison warden looking while all these items are made right under his nose?” the minister fumed. “If similar things are found in the prison warden’s house, appropriate measures must be taken: It means he is conspiring with the inmates and allowed them to take out these items.”
Whether or not Kolbayev gets his thrones, Kyrgyzstan’s tandem of crime and politics will be hard to unseat. As the above-quoted parliament deputy pointed out, there is little incentive to change the status quo: People in power “don’t understand the need for reform because they are used to profiting from this system.”