Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Q&A: 'Many Would Prefer To Die Than Endure This'

Interview with T. Akun, Kyrgyzstan's Ombudsman

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, Aug 5 2008 (IPS) - In the dungeons of Bishkek the summer temperatures are soaring. The air is thick and stagnant. Since the abolition of the death penalty, the threat of execution has been removed but inmates are living on the borderline of existence.

T. Akun Credit: Kyrgyz Ombudsman Institution

T. Akun Credit: Kyrgyz Ombudsman Institution

Kyrgyzstan's Ombudsman T. Akun, in an interview with IPS Central Asia correspondent Kuban Abdyman, tells of his immediate reform goals – including bringing fresh air and paid employment to the former death row inmates.

IPS: It's almost two years since Kyrgyzstan became the second Central Asian nation to abolish capital punishment. Your critics argued then that you were giving up a deterrent to crime. Is it possible to assess now whether abolition has had any effect on the serious crime rate?

T. Akun (TA): That's a very difficult question to answer. There's been no research on this since the passing of new constitution excluding any mention of the death penalty. But we do know that the majority of the Kyrgyz population have supported death penalty abolition. They consider this as a step towards the democratisation of the country. It's quite another matter, though, whether those sentenced to death have welcomed abolition.

IPS: When the criminal code was amended last year to bring it in line with the constitutional ban on executions, it was set out that all the past death penalty verdicts should be revised. How are the courts progressing with this?

TA: In some cases the Kyrgyz courts have began to revise of the old death penalty decisions to bring them into line with the constitution. However, the criminal code, as well as many other laws, is only now being coordinated with the constitution. As a consequence, not all past death penalties have yet been sent back for revision. The Kyrgyz Ombudsman institution is working on this issue because we are receiving a lot of applications. These are not just coming from inmates but also their relatives.

IPS: Did you have an opportunity to meet with death row prisoners before Kyrgyzstan abolished the death penalty?

TA: Unfortunately, I didn't have this opportunity before I became Ombudsman. I was appointed to this position by parliament only this year. Before that, I headed the commission on protection of human rights under the president of Kyrgyzstan. But I hope now to meet these inmates and play a useful role on their behalf.

IPS: Where are the former death row prisoners now being held?

TA: As far as I know, there have been no essential changes to where they were held before abolition. There are 136 prisoners in just one prison named SIZO-1, near Bishkek. It's a prison meant for just 32 inmates. In a second prison, SIZO-5, there are another 28. This has special two-man cells, though they hold three. In other cells there are even eight prisoners.

IPS: You hinted that there's been a mixed reaction to abolition from these inmates. What have you heard?

TA: Two years ago, the Ombudsman institution canvassed the views on death row. It found 125 prisoners were against the death penalty. But seven thought otherwise; they said it was inhumane to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment. They preferred execution to a life there in prison.

IPS: Did you question the death row inmates about anything else?

TA: We questioned them about their conditions in prison. In SIZO-1 they said they had access to a doctor after making a written application to the chief of a special unit. But sometimes they did not receive the appropriate treatment because of a lack of necessary medicines. They had no first-aid kits in their cells. But all had access to first-aid from a medical unit staffed with nurses. These also provided first-aid training. In the case of serious illness, inmates could be transferred to a medical unit or a separate cell. Those suffering from tuberculosis received a balanced diet, including sour milk products, oil and meat.

We checked up on their diet. The prison administration does monitor the preparation and consumption of food. But because of lack of funding, the food is poor and monotonous; breakfast, liquid porridge from wheat; lunch, stewed cabbage, macaroni or borsch; dinner, a soup with ingredients defying the inmates' powers of description.

All these problems can be put down to the lack of state money. But one can expect that in the near future work will begin on a separate prison meeting international prison standards. At least, the minister of justice, Marat Kayipov, has spoken repeatedly of the necessity of building one.

At the moment, though, conditions do not meet "minimum international prison living standards". I have mentioned the reason for this. Our country is in the gradual process of democratising. But I do hope there will be an appreciable improvement.

IPS: Has there been any improvement in conditions since abolition?

TA: It's really impossible to say. As I have said, the conditions are minimal. Many inmates would prefer to die rather than go on enduring what they do. Their cells are approximately 16 square metres. The temperature in practically all cells is over 20 degrees. They are in the basement. There's no airing, installed ventilation or natural light. There is piped water and a toilet. It's possible to boil water and use electric stoves and radios; they can receive newspapers and books. But the prisoners have to pay for these facilities themselves or with the help of relatives.

IPS: Does the prison system have trained staff to prepare "lifers" for return to society?

TA: There's a need for professional training for wardens working with "lifers". But, unfortunately, in the absence of necessary financing Kyrgyzstan still has no specially trained prison staff.

IPS: There are a total of six articles in the revised criminal code providing for a life sentence. Isn't this extremely harsh?

TA: This really is too much. But Kyrgyzstan is moving forward and as it does, the public will see the need to reduce this number. You have to recognize that the death penalty, now replaced with life imprisonment, was not used for many years. The first steps towards the humanisation of criminal prosecution have already been made. I do think that in due course, Kyrgyzstan will have humane penal conditions for its prisoners. The Ombudsman institution will do everything to achieve this.

IPS: Have the families of those executed in the past now been informed where they are buried?

TA: State killings, even of the most hardened criminal, provoke different reactions. But it is inhumane towards the relatives of those executed to withhold information on where they have been buried. Up till now, I know of no case where the relatives have been informed on the location of the graves. All they have been told is that the execution has been carried out and issued with a death certificate.

IPS: Where are you intending to focus your efforts for reforms for the "lifers"?

TA: Prison conditions must be brought up to international standards. This means improving the sanitary conditions in the cells and the ventilation. As I said, there's no compulsory ventilation system to compensate for the lack of natural airing. This is intensifying the inmates' punishment, particularly in summertime.

As Ombudsman, I am going to press the government to introduce a system of paid employment for the prisoners. This would benefit the prisoners, the state and the society as a whole. The experience abroad has shown it can help with the maintenance of the prisons. It also helps realise the goals of the criminal justice.

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