Prisoners in Tajikistan die with alarming frequency, and they do so in painful and violent ways.
The ones who live endure a miserable existence, exposed to starvation, disease and physical torment. And an untold number should not even be behind bars in the first place, rights activists say.
This past year has seen a spate of largely unexplained mass deaths among convicts.
The most recent incident occurred in July.
According to an account circulated by the Interior Ministry, 128 prisoners were being moved in three vehicles from a facility in the north of the country to one closer to the capital, Dushanbe. The transport vans stopped six times along the way, officials said.
At some stage, prisoners were given bread to stave off hunger. Shortly afterward, the men began to complain about feeling sick.
By the time the prison vans had got to Dushanbe, at around 6:20 p.m., many had lost consciousness. There was no ambulance waiting. It would take another five minutes before medical help arrived. Fourteen people died.
A hastily issued statement from the General Prosecutor’s Office said their investigations had determined that the prisoners succumbed to food poisoning after eating the bread.
That, at least, is the government’s story.
To prisoners interviewed by Eurasianet and relatives contacted by other media outlets, the official narrative is riddled with inconsistencies, omissions and outright deceptions.
Bus to hell
The first thing that caught the eye of Shukhrat Kudratov, a lawyer who spent four years in prison, was the sheer number of prisoners being moved.
“The prisoner transports are designed for a maximum of 20 people. But in this case, it turns out that 50 people were being transported in the same vehicle. Forty-three or so prisoners and then the guards,” said Kudratov.
Kudratov, who has personal experience of being moved around in prison vans, likens it traveling in the cramped minibuses that ply the streets of Dushanbe, where passengers often jostle for room and have to sit on one another’s laps.
The drive to Dushanbe from the north is long, the road is mountainous and uneven, and the conditions inside the vehicle were suffocating.
Another ex-prisoner who spoke to Eurasianet on condition that he be identified only by the name Shokir served much of his time in a penal colony in the southern town of Yavan through to the end of 2018. He recalled being transported from Khujand, in the north, to Dushanbe in February 2015. More than 45 people were squeezed into his vehicle.
“It was impossible to breathe in the van. The guards can breathe because they are sitting right by the door. But we couldn’t breathe at all. I didn’t eat anything, but by the end of the drive, I felt nauseous,” said Shokir, who is in his late 30s.
And that was in the middle of winter. Temperatures in summer can reach scorching levels. On that fateful July 7, temperatures stood at around 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).
Contrary to what authorities claim is standard, Shokir said his van did not stop once during the hours-long voyage.
Kudratov reported a similar experience and said this was just an inevitable practice necessitated by security concerns.
“Just think, how can just a few guards maintain control over 128 prisoners?” he said.
Family members of some of the 14 men who died have reported receiving bodies showing signs of beating.
“His nose was broken, his face wasn’t recognizable anymore,” Saodat Solehova told RFE/RL’s Tajik service, speaking about her 34-year-old son, Nekqadam Solehov.
Other relatives had similar stories.
From day one
Those who have experienced incarceration in Tajikistan say the suffering begins even before they get to prison. Few places are as feared as pre-trial detention centers – known across much of the former Soviet Union by the abbreviation SIZO.
"People held at the SIZO in Istaravshan lose their eyesight,” said Shokir. “For some reason, the floor is always wet, and you cannot stand. Even the prayers have to be recited on the bed.”
Jamshed Yorov – the brother of the lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is now serving a lengthy sentence issued in reprisal for acting on behalf of jailed opposition figures – spent 37 days in a pre-trial detention center. He described cells holding up to 15 people at a time. Inmates are allowed out twice a day for their only chances to see sunlight.
“It is not possible to sleep, because the whole cell is infested with bugs. People eat and go to the toilet inside the cell,” said Yorov, who now lives in Europe.
Guards perform cell inspections twice daily, but glance through the peephole at several points in the day. The unwritten rules states that inmates must on every occasion stand to attention and greet the guard with word “salom” (literally “peace,” but used as a greeting throughout much of the Islamic world). Failure to do so can incur a beating.
“Sometimes they play around with the peephole. Every two minutes, you will have to stand to attention and shout ‘salom.’ One time, they opened the peephole and there was a guy asleep with his head on the table. That got him a beating,” Yorov said.
There is a way to get reprieve from all this, however.
Anyone able and willing to pay can avoid the abuse. The charge for escaping a beating, for example, is around 20 somoni ($2), Yorov said.
Prisoners can even get more comfortable digs if they are able to raise the funds. A payment of 250 somoni ($26) buys a cell with an air conditioner and improved conditions.
And there is a charge for getting access to decent food.
“The [prison] food is just like water. For that reason, people have food brought for them from home,” Shokir said.
The contents of food parcels handed in by relatives are routinely pilfered by guards. There is no point for visitors to bring anything too fresh anyway. Items handed over to prison staff at 8 a.m. only get to the prisoner by the late afternoon.
“Under the pretense of checking, [the guards] will eat the food themselves, and we get the rest. And even then, you have to play 10 somoni just to get your own food,” Shokir said.
Over the seven months that Kudratov spent in pretrial custody, he only had one warm meal.
“The guards try the food, and anything that tastes good they keep for themselves. My relatives brought me plov, and the prison guards took out all the meat and left just the bones,” he said.
In pre-trial facilities, even basic bedding is often not provided for periods of up to 10 days, due to overcrowding. Cells ostensibly intended for 14 people are crammed with 20 prisoners. Again, money can fix this problem.
When it happens, the move from the SIZO to an actual prison comes as something of a very mild relief. A prison offers more opportunities for strolling in a courtyard or visiting the prayer room or library.
But there is procedure to go through at the start.
First comes the beating. That establishes the pecking order – guards are in charge and the inmates are nothing.
Day one in long-term confinement brings with it a procedure known in prison slang as Uniform Zero. The new arrival is stripped naked in front of fellow prisoners for inspection.
“They strip you in front of 200 other prisoners and force you to do squats. The point is supposedly to find SIM cards, money or any other contraband. But in reality, the prison staff are just trying to humiliate you,” said Shokir.
Closed-circuit cameras have been installed for the convenience of outside visitors inspecting the prison. But their existence is a token gesture.
“Over the four years that I was in prison, nobody from any international organization came to see us,” said Shokir.
Complaining is forbidden.
Kudratov said prisoners would come to him for his legal expertise and advice on how to compose petitions to higher authorities. But complainants sought maximum discretion and wrote their appeals anonymously, he said.
The abuse is often engineered to maximize indignity and amuse the guards. Prisoners may be forced to sing, dance, do squats, slap themselves and swear on command. Shokir said that men are sometimes forced to perform animal noises, to bark, mew and bray.
Objecting to this or violating any other written and unwritten rule is a sure ticket to the ShIZO, derived from a Russian abbreviation meaning “penalty isolation cell.”
This is not exactly the solitary familiar from Hollywood movies. Up to four people can be held at a time in the cells, which measure two meters by three. A bucket serves as the shared toilet. A stretch in the ShIZO is allowed to last up to 15 days. Beatings are a customary part of this punishment.
Inmates doing time in the punishment cell cannot receive food packages from outside. It is either prison food or starvation.
“There was this one prisoner who tried to slash his throat,” recalled Kudratov. “When I asked why he did it, he answered that the prison guards had demanded money from him, and he just did not have it. He was threatened with confinement in the ShIZO, so he preferred to slash his throat. If you end up there in winter, pneumonia is a certainty.”
Sobir, another former prisoner who spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, served his sentence at a penitentiary in Vahdat, a town a few kilometers east of Dushanbe.
There, inmates fell very broadly into one of two camps: adherents to ultra-orthodox or extremist Islamic groups and everybody else.
These groups would get into fights at least once a month, Sobir said. Arguments could break out over all kinds of things – theological differences, how to pray properly, or just general attitudes to life and morality.
Weapons, like so much other contraband, can be acquired through prison staff in exchange for money.
Few enmities are as bitter as that between the religious radicals and the imprisoned members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, whose followers were thrown behind bars en masse following a 2015 court ruling decreeing the party to be an extremist movement.
“You do not need to do anything special to get them worked up. Secular people have their own laws that do not correspond to religious ones,” Sobir said.
In late May, 32 people – 29 prisoners and three staff – died during unrest at the Vahdat colony. Authorities pinned the violence on the Islamic State militant group.
Several months earlier, in November, a skirmish allegedly broke out among prisoners in the Khujand colony, in the north. In that incident, 21 prisoners and two guards died, according to officials. That bloodshed too was pinned on the Islamic State.
Steve Swerdlow, a researcher on Central Asia for Human Rights Watch, noted that the exact circumstances of these incidents remains unclear, not least because no proper investigation has been undertaken.
What is evident, however, is that tensions in the incarceration facilities are exposing many prisoners to intense dangers.
“The killings raised serious concern about the current and future safety of the IPRT prisoners and others held on politically motivated grounds. We continue to call for them to be released and at a minimum transferred to home detention while their cases are further examined,” Swerdlow said.
The sheer number of fatalities has focused attention on the measures that security forces are deploying to quell instances of unrest.
Both prison riots “raise very serious questions about the Tajik authorities’ use of disproportionate or excessive lethal force and also about the arbitrary deprivation of the prisoners’ right to life,” Swerdlow said.
The official position
The government swats away complaints about prisons.
At the start of July, Tajikistan’s Deputy Justice Minister Shahnoza Nodiri reported to the 126th session of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.
Nodiri told the committee that over the past five years, funding for prisons has doubled. She did not, however, provide figures for either the budget or the number of people being kept in prisons.
“Convicts are given individual berths and bedding. Clothing is given taking into account age and climatic conditions,” she said.
Such boasts fly in the face of countless first-hand testimonies and are impossibly to verify credibly. In fact, the Tajik government behaves very much like it has something to hide.
Local rights groups are not permitted to inspect prisons except when accompanied by representatives from the government-sanctioned Ombudsman Office. This invariably means the facilities in question are aware of the visit well in advance.
The International Committee for the Red Cross has been denied access to Tajik prisons since 2004. Nodiri said this is because the ICRC has declined to accept Dushanbe’s terms for the inspections. Among the ICRC’s stipulations is that they be allowed to freely converse with prisoners.
Kudratov argues that a major indictment of Tajikistan’s prisons is that they do not perform even their primary function of preparing people for life after incarceration.
“Correctional colonies do not correct,” Kudratov said. “The monstrous situation in prison destroys a person. On the contrary, the colony makes prisoners aggressive – hatred for the system and the authorities is taking shape.”
Kamila Ibragimova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Tajikistan.