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RIGHTS-KYRGYZSTAN: Alarm After ‘Lifers’ Attempt Breakout

Kuban Abdymen

BISHKEK, Nov 21 2008 (IPS) - The Kyrgyzstan parliament has ordered that the most dangerous of the country’s life-term prisoners should be moved from their jails and put in isolation cells dispersed around the country following an attempted prison breakout which led to four deaths.

MPs agreed Nov. 14 to this emergency measure, proposed by deputy justice minister Sergey Zoubov, until the completion of a special maximum security unit to hold all life-term prisoners.

A second, less dangerous category among the country’s 189 life-term prisoners will be placed under stricter control and denied any contact with other inmates.

“Some of the ‘lifers’ are a bad influence on the rest of the prison population,” Zoubov told MPs two weeks earlier when he asked them to approve the new measures.

“They are making it difficult for us to maintain order. They are destabilising the prison system.”

The foiled breakout was at the Belovodskaya jail, 50 km northwest of capital Bishkek on Aug. 14. Belovodskaya holds 33 life-term prisoners.

A group of life-term prisoners attacked warders and other inmates. Two warders were killed in the escape attempt, Sergey Sidorov, a spokesperson for the Kyrgyz prison department said at a press conference a day after the incident.

One police version is that prisoners not serving life terms fought off the escape attempt. Later, the two alleged ring leaders, including one serving a life term, were beaten to death by other prisoners while being transported to another prison.

Another version is that the two died during the escape attempt from injuries caused by prison guards.

A government commission set up to investigate the incident and the general situation in the prison system led to the sacking of the minister of justice, Marat Kaiypov.

Belovodskaya prison is one of several holding life-term prisoners. In Novopokrovka, 60 km northeast of the capital there are 60, in Moldovanovka 50 km north of the capital, 51, and in Bishkek, 25.

During a parliamentary debate on how the country should respond to the emergency, Asanbek Baitikov, member of the Ak Jol political party created by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev two months after his election in December 2007, called on lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty which was abolished in 2006.

“Everyone knows these people have not been adequately punished for their crimes. They remain unreformed criminals. One can only expect more such criminal acts, such as the taking of hostages and the attacking of public officials.”

His comments were in apparent reference to the killings of Tynychbek Akmatbaev, an MP and head of the parliamentary committee on law enforcement and defence, and the head of the prison service department, Col Ekmatulla Pulatov. They were shot dead by an inmate during an inspection visit to the Moldovanovka prison in 2006. Rustam Abdullin was later sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime.

After the killings, security measures were tightened throughout the prison system.

Zoubov reassured parliament that the threat posed by some long-term prisoners could be contained if they were separated and held in isolation cells normally used for people on remand.

“There hasn’t been a single emergency incident with such prisoners in these cells over the past eight years.”

A small number of isolation cells are located in most major cities. Security here is tighter than in other jails because they are in police stations.

Few details are known about the new high-security unit Kyrgyzstan is planning to build for its long-term prisoners. It is believed to be the first of its kind in the central Asian region.

It will be located in Djanydjer, a town in the north-east of the country. This is a six to eight hour journey by road from Bishkek.

Eight hundred thousands dollars are needed to complete the project, Zoubov said. A part of the money, 5 million soms (130,000 dollars), has been spent on the building’s foundations. But work has now been held up. “The global economic crisis is already beginning to affect us,” Zoubov said.

Economists are predicting a cut in the country’s growth rate. Already, work on many other public building projects has been halted, and investment plans have been scaled down. The value of the national currency has fallen.

Tursunbek Akun, Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsman, an official elected by parliament to monitor human rights, has appealed for funds from state and international organisations to pay for improvements to the penal system generally and the new high-security prison in particular.

Before the attempted breakout, Akun expressed alarm about the penal conditions in Kyrgyzstan. He suggested that abolition had been carried out without thinking through what to do about the “minimal” conditions in the underground dungeons where most of the life-terms prisoners are held.

“Many would prefer execution than go on enduring these conditions,” he told IPS before the attempted breakout.

In an opinion poll held before Kyrgyzstan abolished the death penalty, only seven out of all the life-term prisoners thought living out most of their natural lives in their cells was more humane than execution by a firing squad.

One major penal reform Akun had suggested is to introduce paid employment for inmates.

Zoubov has recently expressed support for equipping prisons with workshops and facilities to teach prisoners a profession.

The present crisis in the Kyrgyzstan penal system could mirror that in other countries in the central Asian region following the end of state executions and the commutation of death sentences to life imprisonment.

Since gaining independence after the break-up of the Soviet Union, four countries – Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan – have abolished the death sentence in law or practice. Tajikistan operates a moratorium.

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