The power of shadowy criminal guilds may explain last winter’s mass hunger strike and outbreak of lip-sewing by Kyrgyz prisoners.by Askar Erkebaev 7 May 2012
BISHKEK | Aktan is in the eighth year of a life sentence at Detention Facility (SIZO) No. 1 in Bishkek.
He took part in a prison riot on 16 January that began, he says, when special forces entered cells on the third floor of the prison and “started beating all the inmates for no reason.”
“We acted up, began to fight, and then kept on protesting in our cells. Later, the authorities called it a riot. But we didn’t attack the first four prison staff who came to search our cells, as officials said,” the inmate said in an interview shortly after the situation returned to normal at the prison. (The names of prisoners quoted in this article have been changed.)
About 1,500 inmates are incarcerated at SIZO No. 1, including convicted crime bosses. Like the other SIZOs, No. 1 was meant to be a pre-trial holding facility but is also used to house convicted prisoners owing to lack of space elsewhere in the prison system. Questions remain about what sparked the riot, and why it spread into a nationwide 10-day hunger strike involving most of the country’s prisoners, hundreds of whom acted out in the most attention-grabbing way they could, by sewing their lips shut.
Authorities and inmates concur that the trouble at the Bishkek jail broke out when prisoners tried to block a regular search of their cells. Some prisoners vandalized their cells, while others cut their hands or stomachs. The riot was quickly quelled by special forces using flash grenades and batons. During the brawl, 160 prisoners and four prison staff were injured. The death of one inmate during the incident was attributed by prison officials to a drug overdose, but some prisoners claim he was beaten to death by troops. Prison officials said a search turned up 180 grams of drugs, four knives, and the equivalent of $1,280 in cash.
Guards also found 39 mobile phones, but apparently some were overlooked in the search, since Aktan later spoke to TOL on a mobile phone from his cell without the knowledge of prison staff.
Convincing explanations are lacking for the riot at SIZO No. 1 and why it grew and spread across the country. Prison officials hypothesize that the elite inmates, on orders from the boss of bosses in exile, instigated the uprising to strengthen their hold over prison life or in retaliation against the new government’s anti-crime drive. Some prisoners disagree, arguing the miserable conditions in prisons drove desperate inmates to take action. What emerges from the January events is abundant proof that gangs control much of what goes on in Kyrgyz prisons, even if their privileges have been checked by newly appointed wardens and administrators.
SIZO No. 1 staff told journalists 16 January the riot broke out when inmates tried to stop the transfer of a prominent prisoner, Damir Saparbekov. The next day Saparbekov was taken for questioning by police and then transferred to SIZO No. 50, a high-security prison outside Bishkek that houses organized crime figures and ranking criminals, State Corrections Service Director Sheyshenbek Baizakov later told the 24.kg news agency.
A similar scenario unfolded in 2005 when a series of prison riots over living conditions may also have been connected with an attempt to transfer a crime boss from one facility to another.
When the rioting died down, prisoners at SIZO No. 1 went on a hunger strike and soon nearly every adult male inmate in the country had joined in. In total, about 6,700 prisoners at 29 facilities refused to eat, and 1,200 of them sewed their lips shut. After 10 days, the protest came to a sudden end.
“Prisoners had a lot of demands, but one of the main ones was to force [Baizakov] from his position. Another demand was to unlock the cells of criminal leaders at SIZO No. 1,” prison service spokesman Alexander Niksdorf said in March. Baizakov lost his job in April after exiled former President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s brother Akhmat Bakiev escaped from detention.
Niksdorf said the protests were organized by Kamchy Kolbaev, a “thief-in-law” or crime boss believed to be in the United Arab Emirates. Kolbaev was convicted of murder and other crimes by a Kyrgyz court in 2002. Authorities say he exerts tight control over Kyrgyzstan’s prison system through subordinates.
Inmates in only three of the country’s 32 prisons refused to join the hunger strike: two for women and youth, and the prison in the northern city of Naryn, where rival crime boss Aziz Batukaev is jailed. Batukaev ordered inmates there not to join the protest, SIZO No. 1 warden Mars Jusupbekov said. The attempted transfer of Batukaev and other prisoners in 2005 may have helped spark that year’s riots, which resulted in the deaths of several inmates and a member of parliament who tried to negotiate with prisoners.
The trial of Saparbekov and 10 other prisoners charged with organizing the 16 January riot is set to begin 10 May.
THE POWER OF THE OBSHCHAK
It is common knowledge in Kyrgyzstan that the real power inside prisons is held by shadowy associations of senior criminals who fund their own, comparatively lavish prison lifestyles by selling drugs and extorting money from ordinary inmates. Such groups, called obshchak, operate at every Kyrgyz prison and are said to be headed by bosses who take orders directly from Kolbaev.
The obshchak organization has long been a power behind the scenes in Central Asian prisons, the International Crisis Group wrote in a 2009 report, which defines obshchak as “a many-layered self-help administrative and trading body set up by the prison’s criminal fraternity, with the blessing of major crime figures.”
Jusupbekov, the new warden who took over at SIZO No. 1 shortly before the riot, said he blamed the unrest on senior criminals angry over his attempt to end their freedom of movement around the prison.
“The obshchak forced ordinary prisoners to go on hunger strike, but its members themselves didn't starve at all. Moreover, weak and young inmates were pressured by the obshchak to sew their mouths shut,” Jusupbekov said.
“I was appointed to SIZO No. 1 in December 2011 and I found that five obshchak cells had always been open. I closed two cells and immediately did the same with the rest after the 16 January riot. Since the obshchak couldn't roam the prison and extort money from other inmates, its members forced ordinary prisoners to go on hunger strike to make us open at least one cell,” he said.
Aktan, the prisoner, disagrees with the official view. He said the protest was not instigated by crime bosses.
“We showed our discontent with the lawlessness and disrespect that took place on 16 January, on our own. We were arrested and sentenced to punishment and serve it here, but when we are beaten up for no reason, it’s just unbearable,” the convicted murderer and robber said.
About 400 inmates at the detention center sewed their lips shut, Aktan said.
“It’s impossible to force so many people to do this. They did it because they couldn’t bear the officials’ lies anymore.”
Under previous management, SIZO No. 1 was a source of high profits for criminals, prison service spokesman Niksdorf said.
“Obshchak members could walk freely around the prison and enter any cell, since they had keys or picklocks. They extorted money from almost all the inmates and beat up or even killed those who didn't obey them,” Niksdorf said. Elite prisoners raised $2 million to $2.5 million in this way every year at SIZO No. 1, he said, making the facility the main source of cash flowing to criminals on the outside.
Niksdorf insists the criminal world lost one of its main funding sources when the new government came to power in December.
A former inmate, Rustam, said the large facility used to be known as the center of the behind-bars drug trade. Rustam spent six months at SIZO No. 1 in 2006 while waiting for his case to be heard. He said drugs were kept in four or five cells and distributed by prison staff.
Drug dealing has stopped completely since he became warden, Jusupbekov said.
Drug use is rife in Kyrgyz prisons. The International Crisis Group report cited an estimate by prison officials of a 60 percent addiction rate among prisoners in the highest-security prisons and in SIZO facilities.
PRISON REFORMERS FACE HERCULEAN TASK
Interviewed before his dismissal, Baizakov admitted that “dirty and corrupted employees” were still supplying drugs, phones, and money to prisoners. Practices like these have been targeted by the new government in its first months in power. Almost three dozen investigations have been opened into abuses by managers and staff of the corrections system, and eight former wardens have been arrested under suspicion of corruption and involvement in four murders of inmates, Interior Minister Zarylbek Rysaliev said.
The warden of SIZO No. 1 until Jusupbekov replaced him in December, Ilmir Allayarov, was arrested in February on suspicion of extortion, abuse of office, and involvement in the murder of an inmate in May 2011.
A corrections service press release said Allayarov allowed members of the obshchak free access to cells and took a cut of the money they extorted from inmates. He also allegedly demanded bribes from prisoners for privileges such as moving to a different cell or permission to meet relatives or receive packages.
Allayarov is being held at SIZO No. 50, pending his trial.
Little over a month after the hunger strike and mass lip-sewing episode again brought international attention to the problems of the Kyrgyz prison system, Akhmat Bakiev’s escape caused even more embarrassment. He was serving a seven-year term for organizing mass unrest, inciting interethnic hatred, and other offenses in connection with the bloody outbreak of communal violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Amid rumors that high-ranking officials conspired to free Bakiev, Baizakov was dismissed in early April.
“Akhmat Bakiev’s escape showed that the State Corrections Service of Kyrgyzstan needs cardinal reforms,” Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov said after meeting the dismissed prisons chief on 6 April, the government press office reported. That project has now fallen to Baizakov’s successor, former Deputy Defense Minister Alikbek Mamyrkulov. As a beginning, Mamyrkulov said he had met many “famous prisoners” during a working visit to several prisons soon after taking office.