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Kazakhstan Prepares a Draft Law on Penal Reform

500 cases of torture in penal colonies were registered in the last decade in Kazakhstan, and 2,026 cases were dismissed.


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This spring the penal system of Kazakhstan was reported to change. Meanwhile, lawyers and human rights activists were developing mandatory reforms, and in August they submitted them to the interior ministry. They will become the basis of the future draft law.

According to Azamat Shambilov, regional director of representation office of Penal Reform International (PRI) in Central Asia, they have been speaking for five years that torture and high security in prisons don’t contribute to the correction of inmates. The fact that the government has finally started to move towards penal reform has become a surprise for them. 

Azamat Shambilov. Photo: rus.azattyq.org

“The society of Kazakhstan is going through a very interesting period: civic engagement and humanism have increased. People of various statuses, ages and sexes want to change the situation in the country. Of course, we don’t have any guarantees that the proposed penal reform is going to be implemented. However, we won’t ever have perfect environment for that: we must do something about it right here and right now,” Shambilov said.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Interior Ministry (KUIS MVD), there are almost 30 thousand prisoners in Kazakhstan. All of them, with some minor exceptions, will return to the society sooner or later.

“Committed suicide”

Kazakhstan is regularly reported in international reports as a country where torture is a norm. This year it was reported by the EU Parliament in its resolution on human rights situation in Kazakhstan and by the US Department of State in the similar report.

According to the Penal Reform International, 500 cases of torture were recorded for 10 years in the unified register of prejudicial inquiries, and 133 officers of colonies were convicted.

According to human rights activists, regular torture in colonies has become a norm. HIV positive and healthy people are forced to wash themselves in the same water, they are restricted in their rights to visiting and medical help. Of course, physical abuse does also exist.

In early September this year, nine officers and five activists among prisoners were sentenced to various terms for torture in 2016 in the general regime penal colony AP 162/3 of Pavlodar region.

“Those who were delivered to the colony were forced to crawl on the knees to toilet bowls, put our hands into them and cover our faces with this dirt. And they kicked our fingertips and heels,” the inmates of the colony told to court (cited by Azattyk).

Kicked our fingertips and heels.

The reason for the investigation was the death of Sain Muratbekov the next day after he was delivered to the prison. The second episode of the investigation was the death of ex-president of Kazakh Judo Federation, Bakhytzhan Abdykarimov. The court resolved that the wrestler committed suicide with 46 subcutaneous sword-cuts, including 14 on the right forearm, 76 on the left forearm, and cut throat.

Five representatives of the colony LA 155/8 of Almaty region are getting ready for trial. This summer, over forty video and audio evidences of torture in the closed facility were put on the internet. By results of this incident, general prosecutor office inspected penal colonies in the country.

Yevgeni Zhovtis. Photo: sputniknews.kz

As a result, 2,500 violations were detected, 28 complaints were recorded, and 23 prejudicial inquiries were launched. Interior Minister of Kazakhstan Yerlan Turgumbaev called the case in Almaty region a “disreputable fact” and promised to inspect all Kazakhstan prisons together with representatives of the National Preventive Mechanism and NGOs.

“The purpose of the penal system laid out in the correctional legislation – correction of prisoners – is absolutely unenforceable and makes no sense, in my opinion. The conditions we hold the inmates in cannot correct anyone,” Yevgeni Zhovtis, director of Kazakhstan’s International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, said.

Correctional Facility шт Karabas village, Karaganda region, Kazakhstan. Photo: CABAR.asia

There’s no harm in trying?

The list of compulsory reforms contains more than a hundred proposals already approved by the state agency, which the human rights activists divide into four groups:

  1. Changes in the prison management. The Nelson Mandela rules must become a kind of the Bible for colony officers: the inmates are already punished and the purpose of the prison is to give them the opportunity to become better.
  2. The colonies must have prisoner reintegration and re-socialisation programmes developed and approved.
  3. Further training programmes must be created for prison officers, as well as their social and material status must be improved. How can we demand humanism from people who don’t know what it is about?
  4. Amendments to the law.

The draft law is under development, but the Interior Ministry has already agreed to take some measures without the approval of legislators. The prisoners are no longer forced to march and sing the anthem since summer. Also, it provided prisoners with disabilities with paid assistants among other inmates.

Also, according to Tenizzhan Dzhanibekov, deputy chair of KUIS, the agency decided to give up on high-security penal colonies. There are four of them in the country and the inmates there often may not be visited by relatives. Moreover, the Committee proposes to detain first-time offenders, regardless of the gravity of offence, in general regime penal colonies not to let them contact those prisoners who could affect them in a negative way.

“We change the norm of release for medical reasons. The court is given a month to consider such cases now, but we suggest reducing this time to 10 days.  Now the inmates have to apply in paper form. We provide an option of electronic complaint to make sure their applications are not monitored,” Dzhanibekov specified other improvements.

Aiman Umarova. Photo: theopenasia.net

However, some human rights defenders don’t believe the Interior Ministry can implement the penal reform. According to human rights activist Yevgeni Zhovtis, the Penitentiary Committee must be removed from the police agency either as an independent state agency, or a civil ministry. Lawyer Aiman Umarova, who often handles torture cases in Kazakhstan colonies, also agrees with him.

“When they tell the KUIS or MVD are going to combat torture, it seems ridiculous to me. All those who lead these agencies rose through the ranks from second lieutenant to senior officials. How could they reach such high ranks if they rejected the principles of the system? These principles and the regime are to secure false confessions. How these people are going to fight against what they think essential in their work?” Umarova wondered.

Correctional Facility шт Karabas village, Karaganda region, Kazakhstan. Photo: CABAR.asia

Five countries – five approaches to prisons

Meanwhile, after investigating thoroughly the experiences of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other countries, Azamat Shambilov arrived at the conclusion that the legal address of KUIS is absolutely unimportant, especially in Central Asian countries.

“The reforms in Central Asia depend exclusively on the personality of an officer responsible for the sphere. No one applies system approach,” the human rights activist said.

Kazakhstan is not the only reformer of colonies in the region. Each of five countries finds this matter important, but each of them solves it in their own way.

In Kyrgyzstan, according to Azamat Shambilov, national preventive mechanism is very strong and it closely monitors and discloses all cases of torture. This improves the performance of law enforcement bodies a lot. Some human rights defenders emphasise the increasing influence of organised crime in Kyrgyz prisons.

Not so long ago, Tajikistan also decided to reform the penal system. The situation in the republic was quite difficult from the very beginning: according to the Central Directorate of Corrections at the Ministry of Justice of the country, about 2,500 people out of 10,000 prisoners serve their sentences for extremist crimes. In the last two year, the country faced two prison riots: in Khujand in November 2018, and in Vakhdat in May this year.

In Uzbekistan, the powers of the penal system are also assigned to the interior ministry and the country follows the path similar to Kazakhstan.

“What we offer now is not liberalisation, but humanisation, which was declared a few years ago by the first president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. The country has already humanised law, introduced probation agency, and now it’s time to make those people at the very bottom feel humane attitude towards them,” Azamat Shambilov said.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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