A massive hunger strike in Kyrgyzstan’s prisons is bringing a long-time struggle over penal reform to a boil.
According to local human rights activists, the recent bout of unrest, which kicked off after a riot in a Bishkek holding facility January 16, has seen more than 6,000 inmates refuse food and nearly 2,000 sew their mouths shut, ostensibly to secure better living conditions. Yet the turbulence seems to be about something more than prisoners’ quality of life.
Newly elected President Almazbek Atambayev’s attempt to overhaul the poorly funded correctional system is meeting resistance from two deeply entrenched and hostile camps that are working together, say insiders. One constituency comprises local prison administrators, the other organized criminal groups. According to some observers, mafia networks reportedly subsidize prison facilities because the state can’t afford all the costs involved in housing the country’s roughly 9,000-strong prison population. There’s an incentive for criminal gangs to do so, as prisons represent a ready market for narcotics distribution.
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Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.