Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 118 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan’s Prison System Nightmare

While Kyrgyzstan still struggles to find political stability in the wake of its 2005 revolution, deteriorating conditions in its prison system, known by its Russian acronym GUIN, pose a threat to the fragile state’s security and public health.

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Executive Summary

While Kyrgyzstan still struggles to find political stability in the wake of its 2005 revolution, deteriorating conditions in its prison system, known by its Russian acronym GUIN, pose a threat to the fragile state’s security and public health. Badly underfunded and forgotten, GUIN has all but lost control over the nearly 16,000 inmates for which it is responsible. Power has passed into the hands of criminal leaders for whom prison populations are armies in reserve. A lack of buffers between prisons and the government has meant that trouble in jails has already led to serious conflicts outside their crumbling walls. The risks of strife in prisons leading to wider political instability is likely to worsen unless the government and donors launch an urgent process of penal reform.

Transferred from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in 2002, GUIN is responsible for 36 penal institutions, including prison camps and investigative detention facilities. Guards no longer control the prisons, which are run by criminals, who enforce a strict and sometimes violent caste system. An informal treasury, the obshchak, is used to meet the prisoners’ needs when the authorities cannot or will not; the influence of the obshchak has grown to the point where its power exceeds that of the authorities. At the centre of the system until mid-2005, one inmate, Aziz Batukayev, controlled a criminal empire within the prison walls.

The dangers became apparent in October 2005, when riots broke out in several prisons simultaneously, and a member of parliament, Tynychbek Akmatbayev, was murdered while visiting Batukayev’s prison camp. This sparked a political crisis, with the murdered politician’s brother, Ryspek Akmatbayev, himself an alleged criminal leader and rival of Batukayev, orchestrating large demonstrations in Bishkek that demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, whom he accused of engineering the killing.

The prison uprisings ended with the storming of Batukayev’s camp and his arrest; Ryspek Akmatbayev was killed in May 2006. However, Batukayev is said to retain substantial authority within the prison system while he awaits trial, and new criminal leaders are emerging.

Despite some efforts to improve its financing, GUIN remains desperately underfunded and in debt, unable to carry out basic repairs or even provide proper nourishment for inmates. GUIN personnel are among the lowest paid in the law enforcement and security agencies, despite a recent salary increase, and have perhaps the lowest status. Opportunities for training are few. Poor pay and dangerous working conditions make it hard to attract qualified staff. Shortages of non-lethal weaponry mean that staff are vulnerable as they perform their duties, and there are few options other than major lethal force when trouble breaks out. The “settlement colonies”, in theory an intermediary stage between incarceration and release, are so poorly maintained that escape poses no difficulty. Corruption is rife at all levels of the system. Access to even rudimentary medical care is severely limited; tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS infection rates are massively higher than outside the prisons.

The human rights situation is dire as well. Inmates enforce a strict hierarchy, subjecting the weaker to brutal treatment. Beatings by police in pre-trial detention are common as investigators seek to extract confessions. Suspects awaiting trial and convicted persons awaiting transfer to prison spend months in squalid and inhumane conditions. Though a capital punishment moratorium has been in place since 1998, death sentences continue to be handed down, and death-row inmates are packed into overcrowded, unhealthy holding facilities, in which several die each year. The penal code retains a harsh, punitive character, and acquittals or alternative sentences are rare. Efforts at legal reform have stalled.

There is talk about alleviating the financial crisis in GUIN by resurrecting Soviet-style factory production within the prisons and reducing the prison population through liberalising the criminal code but economic realities and the political climate do not augur well for these steps. The government has published a reform strategy, entitled “Ümüt” (“Hope”), but it is short on specific detail, and donor response has been muted at best.

GUIN’s problems are common to prisons throughout the former Soviet Union and, to a certain extent, around the world. However, the lack of barriers between the prisons and the civilian sector – including political life – make the problems especially dangerous in Kyrgyzstan. If they are to be overcome, comprehensive reform of the justice system in its entirety, including police, prosecutors and courts, as well as prisons, is needed.

Bishkek/Brussels, 16 August 2006

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.

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