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.
Local administrators are reluctant to cede control over the correctional system to national agencies, while crime bosses are loath to give up what are literally captive markets.
Recent events present a worrying echo of October 2005, when widespread prison riots brought the plight of state penal facilities into sharp and gruesome focus. Back then, the country had a new government talking up reforms, a new head of the penitentiary service (GSIN), and a criminal elite seeking to expand its influence. By the time order was restored, an inmate had shot and killed an MP and the GSIN chief while they were visiting a restive provincial jail.
Six years later, the political situation is eerily similar. The riot in Bishkek’s holding facility No.1 occurred the same week a new parliamentary coalition re-appointed hardliner Sheishenbek Baizakov as prisons’ tsar. A career policeman with experience fighting organized crime, Baizakov’s confirmation after 18 months as acting head pleased neither prison wardens -- who fear a challenge to their impunity -- nor criminal networks working inside the institutions, says criminologist and former Interior Ministry advisor, Kairat Osmonaliev.
Sensing “discord in the chain of command,” criminal groups incited unrest in the prisons to “test the system’s strength,” Osmonaliev told EurasiaNet.org. “[Penitentiary] disorder occurs in waves. Often things happening outside the prisons are more important than what is happening inside.”
Kadyr Tokoev, a former head of Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet-era prison system and current vice chairman of GSIN’s public oversight committee, says Kyrgyzstan’s jails are underfunded and dependent on external sources of income to maintain basic living conditions, a factor that strengthens the hand of organized criminal groups.
“In the late Soviet era, the prisons were self-financing. Every prison had its own production facilities. Inmates worked, and received a small wage. […] Now the government gives money from the state budget, but this allocation only meets 30 percent of the system’s requirements,” Tokoev told EurasiaNet.org, adding that the situation encourages low-ranking prison officials to engage in corrupt and criminal practices, including narcotics trafficking.
Officially, the state’s annual allocation to the correctional system is 300 million soms, or about $6.4 million. Tokoev says the obshak -- a communal money pot collected by and distributed among the prisoners themselves – pays for the necessities that the state can’t cover. An August 2006 report by the International Crisis Group found that senior crime bosses -- “thieves-in-law” -- ensure a steady flow of cash into the pots from outside prison walls, thus securing the unswerving loyalty of inmates during clashes with the government.
Now, as hunger strikers add a call for Baizakov’s ouster as prisons’ chief to their demands for greater freedom of movement inside prison colonies, Tokoev claims the standoff amounts to “criminal authorities versus the state.”
Baizakov says he has no plans to yield to strikers’ demands. “Let them all sew their mouths shut,” he reportedly quipped to local journalists on January 26.
Although supportive of attempts to reform the penitentiary system, Kyrgyzstan’s human rights ombudsman, Tursunbek Akun, says the spending shortfall weakens the government’s ability to play hardball with inmates. “While the government cannot afford to heat and repair the prisons, it isn’t in a position of power. While it isn’t in a position of power, it should try to find a compromise,” Akun said.
Nevertheless, having spent the last week touring penal facilities, Akun admits fear, rather than a desire for material benefits or concessions, is driving the strike. “Part of the problem is that the government doesn’t have a common language with prisoners,” Akun told EurasiaNet.org. “If they did, they would realize that many are afraid. We spent the last two days going around the colonies and asking people why they are on hunger strike. Some even said to us, ‘This is an order.’”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.