As Karimjan Ibraimov settles himself in front of a room of reporters and TV cameras, a prison official carefully adjusts the collar of 50-year-old inmate’s neatly buttoned shirt.
Ibraimov is just over halfway through a seven-year sentence for belonging to banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and is about to publically renounce his membership.
“I know that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a fraudulent organization,” said Ibraimov, an active member for more than a decade. “They misuse people’s feelings, their piety.”
Ibraimov, a former schoolteacher in a remote part of Naryn, is serving his sentence at operational facility No. 3 in the village of Novo-Pokrovka village, not far from the capital Bishkek. He related how Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders squeezed money from their followers and were happy to see them imprisoned if it suited their political aims.
“This decision [to renounce Hizb ut-Tahrir] was not made in one day,” Ibraimov explained. “The main reason for my joining the organisation in 2005 was my lack of understanding of Islam.”
After Ibraimov finished his speech, another former Hizb ut-Tahrir member took his place before the cameras.
“This is my final decision. No one from the authorities has forced me to do this… This is my personal decision,” said 38-year-old Ilham Kirgizbayev, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2012 for membership of the organisation.
“I have learned my lesson. This lesson has been enough for me,” Kirgizbayev added.
The Kygyz authorities, worried about growing extremism amongst the majority Muslim population, see such public renunciations as key to spreading an anti-radicalisation message.
But others warn that rehabilitation attempts amongst convicted radicals need to be much more comprehensive to assure any long-term benefit.
Operational facility No. 3 deputy chief Milan Shakiyev said that a number of inmates had already recanted in front of the cameras as a result of outreach work at the prison.
“This is not the first case when they publicly renounce and regret [their actions],” he said. “Such confessions have been made before when prisoners realised they had chosen the wrong path. They realised it due to the awareness-raising work of our officers.”
However, asked by IWPR about what had led them to renounce Hizb ut-Tahrir, both Kirgizbayev and Ibraimov said they had reached their decision independently.
“Yes, I did it on my own. These were my own conclusions. I have sufficient information I can rely on. No one has helped me,” Kirgizbayev said.
Ibraimov said that he had changed his views after speaking to another convict, also a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who was disillusioned with the organisation.
FEARS OF RADICALISATION
In Kyrgyzstan, a secular republic, about 90 per cent of population nonetheless consider themselves to be Muslims.
Religion in Kyrgyzstan has been growing as a force ever since independence, and the government has long aimed to stop the emergence of radical Islam.
According to the State Committee for Religious Affairs, 20 extremist organisations have been banned since 2003, the majority of them Islamic.
Intelligence officials say about 600 nationals have already travelled to Syria and Iraq, and those returning from the combat zone are believed to pose a serious threat to national security. Discussions are still ongoing over the best way to tackle this.
(For more details see Kyrgyzstan: Return From Syria).
There are about 130 prisoners convicted of extremism and terrorism offences kept in maximum security facilities, with another 300 radicals held in less strict conditions. Most are former members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Although this is just a small percentage of the country’s estimated prisoner population of 9,000, radicalisation within prisons is seen as a serious concern.
Those convicted of terrorism-related offences used to be held together with the rest of the prison population, despite warnings that criminal kingpins might join forces with representatives of extremist movements.
“Hardliners convince the representatives of the criminal world of their charitable deeds when they help them,” said Bakyt Dubanayev, a security expert who has studied links between criminals and extremists in closed facilities. “They argue that they will be absolved of their sins if they help their brothers in faith and do good deeds. Thus, conditions were created for committing crimes under the guise of religion,”
The authorities changed procedure drastically after nine men convicted of terrorism offences escaped from prison in October 2015. All were killed or wounded.
In April 2016, amendments to the criminal code mandated that those convicted of terrorism and extremist crimes would be kept in isolation.
In December 2016, the authorities moved 44 convicts into a dedicated prison block in facility No. 27, near Bishkek. Each cell holds three to four inmates and when completed the facility will have capacity for 180 inmates.
“We have placed them… so that their ideas don’t mix with others,” said Murzabek Adylbekov, the chief of facility No. 27.
Others imprisoned for terrorism-related offences have been isolated in other institutions.
Operational facility No. 3 now houses 20 convicted extremists separated from other prisoners.
These convicts are confined to their cells apart from daily exercise periods, and their contact with the outer world and access to information is limited. Family visits have also been curtailed.
“These actions were meant to neutralise the influence of these particular convicts on the remaining inmates in order to prevent and avoid the dissemination of non-traditional Islamic ideas, radical views and extremist, terrorist movements among the convicts,” said deputy correctional facility 3 chief Shakiyev.
He added that efforts were being made to rehabilitate the prisoners as well as to isolate them from other inmates.
“We conduct awareness-raising talks with them. If necessary, we involve experts, representatives of the muftiate, and collaborate with them closely. The approach is based on the nature of the crime,” Shakiyev said.
Ryspek Shamyrkanov is chief of the department that manages all State Penitentiary Service (GSIN) facilities in the republic.
He also said they placed great importance on religious outreach, with imams and representatives of the muftiate visiting prisons each month.
“They visit all of them and work individually [with prisoners], as well. Everyone has an individual file that contains questions asked, answers given, whether they behave aggressively or not, what their opinions are,” Shamyrkanov told IWPR.
He added that prison libraries were stocked with religious books considered suitable by the state committee for religious affairs, the body in charge of regulating all issues of religion in Kyrgyzstan.
Muftiate representatives told IWPR that they have been cooperating with the prison authorities for more than ten years.
Estebes Ajykulov, also a lecturer at the Islamic University in Kyrgyzstan, said that their prison visitor team was made up of five or six people.
The other members were mosque imams and ordinary practicing Muslims who had volunteered to provide prisoners with spiritual aid.
“Frankly speaking, no one pays for our work – neither the muftiate, nor the Yiman Foundation [the presidential foundation that supports Islamic initiatives). We do this for God’s sake,” Ajykulov told IWPR.
He said that they mostly visited prisoners held in the mainstream prison system.
“Thereafter, many convicts start praying namaz, criminals pray namaz. We are not gods to correct everyone. We try… Some people change,” Ajykulov said.
Ajykulov said that they were willing to focus on convicted extremists and terrorists, but that a more comprehensive effort was needed.
“Work is underway, but it is feeble. We need a separate programme [for such convicts]… But we just come, deliver lectures and leave. In Kazakhstan, official imams are assigned to prisons; they are trained, paid wages and work there. Here we do work, but we have only [a few] people,” Ajykulov said.
A CONCERTED APPROACH
Analysts agree that serious and consistent work is essential to ensure that extremists did not return to their former activity upon release.
Aman Saliyev is an expert in Islam at the KRSU institute for strategic analysis and forecasting. He said that experienced theologians, psychologists and religious leaders should be involved in the process, as well as members of the convict’s own family.
“These meetings should not be occasional, but regular and repeated. They should be conducted in a calm environment, not a stressful one, where people can ask questions, not only sit silently and listen,” Saliyev said. “If a person has doubts, he will ask questions all the time, even loaded questions, and the person working with him should be always ready to such questions. He should always receive a reasonable, careful and substantiated answer, mainly based on Sharia law.”
Each convict needed a personally-tailored programme, he continued, taking into account the ideas and groups in which the convict was involved and his level of understanding about Islam.
“It all depends on knowledge, on the deep understanding of religion by people they will work with. If you take the illiterate mullahs that overcrowd the muftiate and regions, they will only aggravate the situation…You can’t just invite a mullah to deliver a half-hour lecture and leave. It won’t do. It will convince them even more that they are on the right path for they will know that public puppet muftis are ignorant, dishonest, commonplace sort of people and their own radical path is the only right path to follow,” he said.
Saliyev said it was wise to be sceptical about former extremists’ motives in renouncing their previous beliefs. Follow-up was also key, he continued.
“If they get into the same environment again, and get brainwashed again, then they will be brought back to the circle of influence… but everything here will depend on the state, security agencies, society, and, most importantly, the family,” Saliyev concluded.
GSIN officials and prison managers emphasised that convicts who recanted were still monitored by the intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies.
“Then, after the release, they keep tracking their further activities,” Shamyrkanov said.
Shakiyev insisted that extremists who recanted had never returned to their previous activity.
“We have never seen or reported the cases when the convicts confessed and then continue their activity,” he said.
The GSIN’s Shamyrkanov was less convinced, adding that one could never be sure in such situations.
“I think [it’s impossible] to understand whether they are manipulating us or not,” he said. “It remains to be seen.”
Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR editor for Kyrgyzstan.
This publication was produced under the IWPR project, Investigative Journalism to Promote Democratic Reform, funded by the European Union.