Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 118 / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

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

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