president’s powers, but are intended to secure his long-term political position 
and fend off any hint of challenge.  By Inga Sikorskaya

PLIGHT OF “ABANDONED WIVES” IN TAJIKISTAN  When migrant workers cut ties with 
home and stop sending money, their families are ill-equipped to fend for 
themselves.  By Mehrangez Tursunzoda

CUTTING YOUTH RE-OFFENDING IN KYRGYZSTAN  More needs to be done to help young 
offenders adjust to life after detention.  By Yelena Voronina


to penal reform has yet to feed through to prison management, activists say.  
By Artur Nigmetov

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Changes appear to diminish president’s powers, but are intended to secure his 
long-term political position and fend off any hint of challenge. 

By Inga Sikorskaya

Changes to the Uzbek constitution giving parliament more powers and 
establishing new procedures for the presidential succession are mainly about 
reinforcing the position of current leader Islam Karimov, analysts say.

On the face of it, the changes look like a tentative step towards democracy. 
Outlining the reforms in a speech to parliament on November 12, President 
Karimov, said the political party or bloc that won the most seats in an 
election would get to nominate a prime minister, a right currently reserved for 
the president himself. Parliament would also have powers to seek the dismissal 
of the prime minister. The government, meanwhile, would take over full 
responsibility for areas like the economy and social affairs that now fall 
within the president’s remit.

The purpose of these changes, Karimov said, was to create a more balanced 
distribution of power among presidency, legislature and executive. Granting 
parliament more authority marked “a new stage in reforming and democratising 
the country”, he said.

Another key change affects the arrangements for replacing the head of state in 
the event he dies or becomes incapable of continuing in the post. At the 
moment, members of parliament are supposed to pick one of their number to fill 
in on an acting basis while a presidential election is organised. Now the 
acting position will automatically go to the chairman of the Senate, the upper 
house of Uzbekistan’s parliament, with an election due within three months.

The president’s true intentions are opaque. Some analysts interviewed by IWPR 
believe he is laying the way for the day he leaves office – though none see 
this as an imminent possibility. Others suspect that members of Karimov’s 
entourage have pressed for the changes in order to guarantee their own 
political survival by ensuring any transition of power goes smoothly. Finally, 
there are those who believe the reforms are no more than the periodic 
window-dressing that Karimov has engaged in for more than two decades.

A member of parliament in Uzbekistan who asked to remain anonymous argued that 
the political elite as a whole is considering the options for a time when 
Karimov is no longer in charge. The new arrangements were really intended for 
the long term.

Several years ago, he recalled, legislation was passed to give former president 
a seat in the Senate and in the Constitutional Court for life. At the time, 
this was misread as a sign Karimov was on the point of retiring.

“If it had been conceived as a plan for a smooth departure, he should have been 
gone by now, but many years have passed since then and we still have the same 
president,” the legislator said.

Instead, he said, Karimov was manoeuvring to ensure he wielded political power 
even if he stepped down as president.

“He will be a senator and dominate parliament as elder statesman. He will 
recommend a candidate [for prime minister], and will say when it is time for a 
vote of no confidence,” he said.

A Tashkent-based political analyst, also speaking on condition of anonymity, 
said the reform might have emanated from Karimov himself, as the realisation 
dawned that if he chose to step down, the presence of a massively powerful 
successor would not be to his own advantage.

“Maybe he’s come to see that when the time comes, this personalised system 
could become unstable,” he said.

Farhod Tolipov, a political analyst in Tashkent, uses a similar example to draw 
a different conclusion – that nothing would actually change. In an interview  
he gave to IWPR, he said cited a previous presidential initiative allowing 
parties to form a parliamentary opposition. Despite this, he said, “we haven’t 
seen any faction emerge as an independent opposition”.

Dosym Satpaev, a political analyst in Kazakstan, agreed that what was being 
presented as reform was really just a mechanism for shaping the future the way 
the president wanted to see it.

“Karimov is very acutely aware of the need to start thinking now about a 
mechanism that will secure continuity and preserve the political system he has 
created,” he said. “This has a lot to do with security – first, for his family; 
second, for the property that belongs to him, to his family and to members of 
his immediate circle,” Satpaev said.

Karimov’s strategy, he said, was to dilute the powers of the next president 
while strengthening those of a parliament dominated by a party he would still 

Tashpulat Yoldashev, a political commentator now living outside Uzbekistan, 
sees the reform as a divide-and-rule tactic designed to satisfy a range of 
political elite groups while preventing any one of them emerging ahead of the 

“Karimov has always played on rivalries and confrontation among clans, taking 
it out on the less trustworthy ones, punishing and destroying them with the 
help of those who happen are close to him at any given time,” he said.

Seen in this light, Ilgizar Sobirov, a little-known figure despite heading the 
Senate since 2006, looks very much like a transitional figure. His connections 
are with a political grouping or “clan” that comes from Khorezm in the 
northwest of Uzbekistan, and is much less influential than the Tashkent, 
Fergana and Samarkand groups.

Sobirov would step in as interim head of state if Karimov left the stage, but 
lacked the backing to make a bid to take over on a permanent basis, Yoldashev 
said. Identifying Sobirov could thus be a way of checkmating Prime Minister 
Shavkat Mirziyoev, who may have grown too powerful for Karimov’s liking.

“Mirziyoev, who has skilfully won the boss’s trust and copies his style of 
leadership and behaviour, has not put his political ambitions on public show as 
yet. But he has been systematically strengthening his position in the state 
apparatus and in the economic sector, and he’s been quietly building up his 
team, which probably hasn’t gone unnoticed by his rivals, who will have 
reported this to the leader,” Yoldashev said.

Rovshan Ibrahimov, head of the international relations department at Baku 
University in Azerbaijan, said any talk of Karimov stepping down was premature.

“This is a period of transition, of preparing the ground,” he said. “All the 
leaders in the post-Soviet area are doing the same thing.”

There is little doubt that Uzbek parliament will approve the reforms President 
Karimov has proposed.

Yoldashev said that Karimov was so strong that no rival would dare challenge 
him as long as he lives.

“Karimov is unpredictable. Depending on what he wants, he will reshuffle his 
staff repeatedly, change the rules of the game and dictate new terms whenever 
he wants to,” the analyst said. “Until he dies, no real change can be expected 
in the country’s political life, in the functioning of parliament, or in the 
appointment and dismissal of prime ministers.”

Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR’s chief editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway.


When migrant workers cut ties with home and stop sending money, their families 
are ill-equipped to fend for themselves. 

By Mehrangez Tursunzoda

While mass labour migration has provided a life-support system for much of 
Tajikistan, those families where the main breadwinner has stopped sending money 
home are among the poorest in the country. 

Civil society groups say more needs to be done to allow abandoned wives to get 
state help, find ways of earning an income on their own, and track down 
husbands who should be paying child support .

The problems facing such families came up a series of discussion events held in 
various parts of Tajikistan from November 25 to December 6. The debates, 
organised jointly by the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, the 
United Nations women’s agency UNIFEM, the Open Society Institute Assistance 
Foundation–Tajikistan, and IWPR, are expected to generate recommendations on 
protecting the rights and interests of migrant families in Tajikistan.

Farzona Yusupova, 36, is fairly typical of the women left behind by husbands 
who go abroad. Although happily married with three children, the couple were so 
short of money that her husband had to find work in Russia.

“There was no news from him for about two years, but then I heard rumours that 
he’d got married in Russia,” Yusupova said. “After a while his relatives grew 
tired of keeping us and drove us out of the house. Who would take me in now 
with three children? I found a hostel to live in and got myself a job as a 
household servant so that we’d have something to live on.”

Having survived the experience, Yusupova’s main worry is that as a single 
parent she cannot give her children the attention they need now that they have 
reached adolescence.

Although economic crisis in Russia, by far the most popular destination, has 
reduced the demand for migrant labour, unofficial estimates put the current 
number of Tajikistan nationals working abroad at up to one million. That 
includes both those who have the right documents and permits and those who are 
working illegally.

Muzafar Zaripov, who runs the NGO Migration and Development and heads a 
resource centre that helps migrants, calculates that 930,000 people went to 
Russia in 2009. The IOM’s current estimate is slightly lower at 800,000.

According to the IOM about 95 per cent of the migrants are men, and nearly 80 
per cent of that number are married.

The money they send home has cushioned large numbers of households against 
destitution over many years in which the Tajik economy has performed poorly. 
According to World Bank data presented last year, remittances account for 
nearly 60 per cent of gross domestic product.

Studies show that most migrants do send money back, although this may not be 
much as they have to pay their own living and other costs first. A study which 
the IOM published in April 2009 said the average amount of money sent home by a 
labour migrant was 400 dollars in the course of a year.

In a later report, from August last year, an IOM researcher calculated that 
some 37 per cent of households where the main breadwinner was abroad were 
living “in poverty or extreme poverty” because they were receiving under 500 US 
dollars a year, and in some cases nothing at all. “The 25 per cent that receive 
more than 500 dollars but less than 1,000 dollars annually may also be at 
risk,” the report added.

For a minority of families, emigration becomes a permanent state and sooner or 
later the money stops coming. The IOM report estimated that about one-third of 
husbands working abroad would settle down in the host country, leaving their 
wives back in Tajikistan.

These “abandoned wives”, the report said, together with those receiving little 
or nothing from husbands they are in contact with, constitute a risk group. 
“These women live in extreme poverty; they lack assistance from the government, 
international organisations and the local community; and their physical and 
mental health is vulnerable as they are defenceless against famine, crime and 
abuse,” it said.

Oinihol Bobonazarova, head of the Perspektiva Plus NGO, described some of the 
issues facing abandoned families.

“We’ve done a lot of work on suicide, where women set fire to themselves. Some 
of them did so because their husbands had gone away, remarried or failed to 
send back money,” she said. “Secondly, children are left without care, as the 
mother has to go out to earn a crust and spends day after day sitting [trading] 
at the market.”

Alla Kuvvatova, who heads the NGO Association for Gender Equality and 
Preventing Violence against Women, said people could seek government assistance 
in such cases.

“There is social support; the state can help if there’s no breadwinner in a 
family for an extended period. They can come say, “He’s gone and he isn’t 
[financially] helping me’,” she explained.

Kuvvatova said lack of education was a basic problem for vulnerable women. 
“They need to be taught how to earn money. They need the simplest skills,” she 

Husbands are legally bound to provide for any children, including after a 
divorce, but this becomes especially difficult to enforce when they are far off 
in another country. Often, they do not divorce their wife in Tajikistan, making 
it hard for her to pursue alimony through legal mechanisms. Other wives may 
have married only according to the Muslim rite without registering with the 
state authorities, so the onus is on them to prove paternity.

In any case, such women, who typically live in rural areas and may not be able 
to travel to a large town, are as a rule unfamiliar with how to take their case 
to a government agency or go to a specialist NGO for advice.

Neli Safarova, coordinator of a project on access to justice and legal reform 
which the League of Women Lawyers is running, said women could get various 
kinds of help from her group.

“We advise them, and if they need legal aid we will write their statements for 
court proceedings,” she said. “A husband can be declared missing…or dead.”

In cases where only a religious wedding had taken place and the woman was 
therefore not married in the eyes of the law, Safarova said her organisation 
would seek a court order for a blood test to establish paternity.

She said lawyers would also help women secure a court order for alimony and 
then try to track the delinquent husband down through reciprocal legal 
arrangements concluded by the Commonwealth of Independent States, of which 
Russia and Tajikistan are both members.

Safarova said legislative changes were needed in several areas – to tighten up 
on alimony payment, to ensure that all marriages were properly registered, and 
to make sure that every worker who left the country did so as a legal emigrant.

At the moment, it is easy for migrant workers to conceal the fact that they are 
married and evade paying child support and alimony once they have stopped 
sending regular remittances.

Firuz Saidov, an expert with the Centre for Strategic Studies in Dushanbe, 
would like to see a revival of the Soviet-era practice of recording marital 
status and children in people’s passports.

At the moment, it is possible for a man with family in Tajikistan national to 
marry a Russian woman by buying a forged certificate stating that he is single.

Saidov would like to see a formal agreement between Russia and Tajikistan 
requiring registration of marriage in one state to be notified to the 
authorities in the other as a matter of course.

When a Tajik migrant settles down and marries a Russian, that is often the 
point at which he will stop sending money back home.

Bobonazarova said that in some cases Tajiks concluded such marriages to get 
accommodation, to ease the route to Russian citizenship, or just as a way of 
deterring local police from harassing them. She cited estimates that 12,000 
Tajik men get married in Russia every year.

That is still a tiny proportion of the men who work in other countries, 
three-quarters of whom will remain there for under a year and continue to 
support their families as best they can.

As Saidov pointed out, 70 per cent of Tajik labour migrants travel abroad in 
spring and come back when the cold sets in. “They’re seasonal; they go off and 
then come back to their wives again,” he said.

With no end to labour migration in sight, though, the real hardships facing 
those households that are abandoned by their breadwinners look set to continue.

Mehrangez Tursunzade is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway.


More needs to be done to help young offenders adjust to life after detention.

By Yelena Voronina

The authorities in Kyrgyzstan should overhaul the juvenile detention system to 
help young offenders reintegrate into society when they are released, experts 

While the country’s main young offenders’ institution provides schooling, 
vocational training and social adaptation programmes are only just getting off 
the ground. And once ex-offenders are on the outside, no provision is made to 
prevent them reoffending or to help them find work and fit into society.

Kyrgyzstan has just one detention facility for young male offenders aged 
between 14 and 18, the period of criminal responsibility for minors. Located 
near the village of Voznesenovka, 70 kilometres from the capital Bishkek, its 
69 inmates are serving sentences for less serious crimes.

The facility is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence with accommodation in 
barrack-style dormitories with bars on the windows, a school and a football 
field. It suffers from the same kind of problems as other penal institutions in 
Kyrgyzstan, such as inadequate heating and a shortage of food and winter boots 
for inmates.

There is no analogous facility for female offenders aged 14-18, and officials 
say there are no plans to build one. They are held inside a women’s prison in 
Stepnoye in the northern Chui region, but separately from the adults. Currently 
there are just four girls in the unit; they do not have schooling but can train 
in practical skills like hairdressing. Female young offenders convicted of 
minor crimes are generally given suspended sentences or alternative penalties.

Young offenders of either sex under the age of 14 are not incarcerated, and are 
the responsibility of local government social service departments wherever they 
live. A special school for this category used to exist, but was closed five 
years ago at the insistence of Kyrgyz NGOs concerned about the treatment of 

Cholpon Omurkanova, who heads Egl, a non-government group focusing on young 
people in trouble with the law, is among those who believe work with young 
offenders has to start while they are locked up. Of the ten boys released from 
the Voznesenovka institution every month, four or five will come back after 

She said special programmes were needed to help them prepare for freedom.

“They need to be prepared for it, so that when they’re released, they find 
their feet and understand how to move on,” she said.

Omurkanova’s NGO is running a project to set up Kyrgyzstan’s first youth 
rehabilitation centre, which will open by the end of this year in the 
Voznesenovka institution. The project, backed by the Danish aid group 
DanChurchAid, is being implemented in collaboration with the prison authorities.

Many child rights activists want to see a network of rehabilitation centres 
outside the penal system, to work with recently-released young offenders by 
finding accommodation and jobs for them.

Among them is Mahabat Temirbek-Kyzy, a senior advisor to the labour ministry’s 
child protection department, who agrees that Kyrgyzstan needs a better system 
for dealing with young offenders.

“It’s very important for Kyrgyzstan to have [state] social services equipped 
with rehabilitation techniques and educational… mechanisms, which would see 
young offenders as the subjects of a process, and their crimes as a symptom of 
an ailment these services would have to treat,” Temirbek-Kyzy said.

She stressed that the ministry would welcome any NGOs that wanted to run 
rehabilitation centres, and reminded them that they could apply for 
government-funded contracts to carry out such work.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t any social [rehabilitation] centres for minors 
with suspended sentences or who’ve been recently released,” Temirbek-Kyzy said.

In the last three years, only a couple of NGOs had applied for funding to work 
with young offenders, and the one that won a contract was focusing on helping 
them get their documents in order, apply for jobs and find accommodation.

“But that isn’t enough to get an adolescent fully back into a normal life,” she 
said. “Nor is it enough for the state alone, or NGOs alone, to be working on 
this. A consolidated approach is needed, also bringing in international 
organisations from countries where this kind of approach has been successfully 
mainstreamed into overall child protection policies.”

Experts on youth offenders agree that helping them catch up on education is a 
key part of the rehabilitation process.

The Vosnesenovka facility has its own school that uses the standard state 
curriculum, plus additional learning programmes to help students fill the often 
massive gaps in their education.

“Sometimes they arrive here without being able to read the alphabet,” Kuraman 
Nazarbekov, who runs the detention facility, said. “They’ve been doing other 
things on the outside.”

He noted that some young men learn enough to go on to higher education after 
their release. “They’ve started families, been in work, and raised children, 
We’re very proud of lads like that,” he said.

The school head, Valentina Geraschenko, said most students were between four 
and six years behind with their education when they arrived that they could not 
catch up. “They have lost any interest in studying and effectively broken all 
contacts with school,” she said. “The amount of time they serve here is also a 
factor. If one of them turns 18, he’ll be transferred to the adult facility, 
and if another is released early, he will have no opportunity to complete his 
education on the outside.”

An IWPR contributor who visited the school said facilities were basic, with old 
desks designed for much smaller children and amateurish attempts at 
refurbishment. Teachers complain of a shortage of textbooks, atlases and 
writing materials.

Russian is the only teaching medium, as there are too few Kyrgyz-language books 
available, and this puts children from the countryside and from neighbouring 
countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at a disadvantage.

Geraschenko and her team of ten teachers appear to be doing their level best 
against the odds.

“To us they’re just children. Each one has ability, some have talent. It’s only 
while they’ve been here that many of them have been able to show their 
ability,” she said. “Our task… is to show every adolescent that there’s light 
at the end of the tunnel even if he’s gone astray and committed an offence.”

She added that having a few more teaching resources would make the classes more 
engaging, although some local teachers and educationalists had helped out by 
passing on used textbooks.

One of the inmates said the school had given him hope of becoming an IT 
specialist when he got out.

“They understand that there’s a lot we don’t know, and help us catch up on what 
we’ve missed,” he said. “In here I’ve realised that I’ve got ability and that I 
can be proud of doing well at studying. Our school is no worse than the ones on 
the outside, but I wish we had new textbooks and maybe computers.”

A 20-year-old former inmate who gave his first name as Kirill is one of the 
success stories. After four years in Voznesenovka, he got out two years ago and 
enrolled on a carpentry course at a college in Bishkek. Since then he has found 
a decent-paying job at a furniture company, where the manager took him on 
despite his past conviction.

“I’m trying to forget the past. Now I’ve got a job and an education. I dream of 
building my own house.”

Kirill’s story is fairly typical of the young people who pass through the youth 
detention centre at Voznesenovka. He left home at the age of 12 to escape 
beatings from his new step-father after his mother remarried, and lived on the 
street, occasionally being picked up by the police.

“I stole things and sold them to feed myself,” he recalled. “I was lucky all 
the time, until I got caught.”

Once in the detention camp, he had to start making up for the year of school he 
had missed. “I’m grateful to the teachers,” he said. “They did a lot for me. If 
I’d had such attentive teachers at my old school maybe I wouldn’t have ended up 
in detention.”

Like many prison staff and current inmates, Kirill would like to see the 
Vosnesenovka facility providing training in practical trades. There was nothing 
like that when he was there, and he got the idea of training as a cabinet-maker 
after coming across a slim book on practical crafts.

Yelena Voronina is a human rights activist in Bishkek who has attended IWPR 

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway.



Central government’s commitment to penal reform has yet to feed through to 
prison management, activists say.

By Artur Nigmetov

The authorities in Kazakstan need to accelerate penal reforms and improve 
conditions to avoid further protests by inmates, rights activists say.

The latest in a series of protests was a hunger strike at Zone 40, a 
high-security prison near the village of Dolinka in Karaganda region. Prison 
rights activist Vadim Kuramshin reported on November 20 that inmates alleged 
they were subject to brutal treatment and deprived of decent food and clothing, 
and HIV-positive convicts were not being given medical treatment.

Protests have been reported at other prisons in Karaganda, the location of a 
network of prison camps dating from Stalin’s rule and known as “Karlag”. On 
November 8, 12 inmates of the nearby Zone 41 facility mutilated themselves by 
slashing their stomachs.

RFE/RL quoted Natalya Gorina, spokesperson for the prison authorities in 
Karaganda, as saying the injured convicts, who had been taken to hospital, were 
demanding a relaxation in prison rules.

These two cases bring the number of protests reported since June to ten. Most 
have taken place in high-security facilities in northern and central parts of 

Kuramshin said there had been two incidents in Akmola region, one of them a 
riot at a prison near the town of Granitny, two more in Kostanay, one in the 
North Kazakstan region, and one at a detention centre in Almaty in July, in 
which prisoners’ relatives say there were at least 30 cases of self-mutilation, 
although officials have confirmed only two.

Precise figures are hard to come by, according to Ardak Janabilova, who is a 
member of a public commission monitoring penal institutions in Almaty region 
and heads the human rights group Sauygu, which is part of Kazakstan’s NGO 
Coalition Against Torture.

"The total number of inmates who have mutilated themselves by cutting their 
stomachs, necks or arms is being carefully concealed by prison officials, and 
many of the cases are not accessible to rights defenders," she said.

Janabilova described the riot at the prison near Granitny, which happened in 
August and was the largest in recent months. She said about 350 inmates took 
part in the incident over three days, and believes four people died, while the 
authorities say it was only two.

The trouble began when at least 80 inmates cut themselves in an attempt to 
highlight conditions at the jail. When there was no response, prisoners 
barricaded themselves in one of the cell blocks. An interior ministry unit was 
then sent in to regain control. Officials said the troops did not carry 


Janabilova said overcrowding was a serious problem at the Granitny prison, and 
inmates had to take turns sleeping, with beds occupied in three shifts.

She argues that the protests are the result of problems that have built up over 
many years.

"Overcrowding, a shortage of prison staff who’ve been trained about human 
rights, frequent changes of management at the Committee for the Penal 
Correction System, a lack of professionalism among staff, and poor conditions – 
all these problems have reached a critical peak," she said.

Kuramshin said the protesters in different prisons across Kazakstan were 
voicing similar demands – "an end to torture, banning military-style practices 
not required by penal law, such as regular, exhausting marching both in hot 
weather and in temperatures of minus 40".

He said corruption among prison staff meant that inmates were denied 
entitlements like packages and meetings with relatives unless they paid bribes. 
Prisons in northern Kazakstan were the worst in this regard, he said.

"In the north of Kazakstan, they ask for money for everything, be it early 
release, prison visits or anything else," he said.

Kuramshin is a journalist from Petropavlovsk who turned to defending prisoners’ 
rights after doing time in jail, including in Akmola region. He received a 
sentence of nearly four years for libel, which is prosecuted under criminal law 
in Kazakstan.

Officials have responded to riots and other protests by saying prisoners are 
trying to avoid being bound by the basic regulations needed to run any penal 

The deputy head of penal institutions in Almaty region, Irina Yakubova, said 
the incident in July in which inmates mutilated themselves was in protest at 
rules introduced by a new prison governor.

"They want to be able to play cards and visit each other,” she told reporters. 
“They just don't want the introduction of rules that are required by law."

Commenting on a recent riot at the Derzhavinka prison in Akmola region, the 
regional penal affairs chief Kanat Tumanov told journalists, "They don’t want 
to do two hours of work, to be on duty, to wash floors, or to observe the 
requirements and rules. They don’t like having to walk in columns."

Some alleged ringleaders have been prosecuted after incidents of this kind.

IWPR tried unsuccessfully to contact senior officials at the justice ministry’s 
Committee for the Penal Correction System for comment on several occasions. A 
written request sent to the committee’s spokesman, Galymjan Khasenov, was left 
unanswered after the prescribed time in which officials are required to give a 


Yet in general, the government has acknowledged there are problems in the 
prison system and promised to take action.

According to a report by the outgoing United Nations Special Rapporteur on 
Torture, Manfred Nowak, the prison population in Kazakstan – at 60,000 
according to official figures – is three times the average in Europe, and well 
above the numbers in other post-Soviet countries.

In a report following a May 2009 mission to Kazakstan, which was submitted to 
the UN Human Rights Council this March, Nowak said the use of torture and other 
forms of mistreatment went beyond isolated cases.

He recommended that national criminal legislation be amended to bring the 
definition of torture into line with that used in the UN Convention against 
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and also 
to create an effective preventive mechanism and investigate allegations of 
mistreatment promptly and impartially.

The authorities have tried to respond to such criticisms. In September, the 
government invited Nowak to take part in the meeting to discuss how 
recommendations from his last year report are being implemented.

Moreover, recent official statements show a willingness to implement reforms of 
the judicial, law-enforcement and penal systems.

Speaking at a press briefing on November 11, the head of the Committee for the 
Penal Correction System, Sultan Kusetov, said changes to the law would result 
in the prison population being halved to 30,000. He was referring to a bill 
currently in parliament which will make penalties for certain offences less 
draconian, provide alterative penalties and decriminalise some minor offences.

Janabalina said that although the bill and the thinking behind it had been 
conceived well before the wave of trouble began, it might not be coincidental 
that President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed off on it in August.

"It’s possible the disturbances in penal institutions provided the impetus for 
more decisive action,” she said.

On the overcrowding problem, Kusetov said this would be resolved by the end of 
the year. Even now, he said, there was “virtually no overcrowding in any 
institution". Over the next five years, prisons would be refitted to meet 
international standards so that instead of large barrack-style dormitories 
housing between 20 and 100 inmates, smaller cells would be put in place.

This summer, the prison authorities ran a one-month campaign to reduce the 
incidence of corruption among guards, with seminars at which they were shown a 
new justice ministry-approved code of conduct.


Human rights activists have welcomed the government's reforms, but warn that 
improvements on the ground – most especially in the prisons where riots took 
place – will not happen until those immediately in charge change their ways. A 
desire for change at the top needs to translate into substantive measures to 
prevent prison administrators running institutions as if they were their own 
fiefdoms, and also to make sure they face sanctions if they continue doing so.

Kuramshin said prison administrations often refused to cooperate or be open 
with NGO representatives, and enjoyed a sense of impunity for alleged 

Mahambet Abjan, a former prisoner who worked with Kuramshin to publicise the 
riots and self-harm cases when news of them began leaking out, expressed 
frustration at the authorities’ failure to make changes.

"The response was limited… nothing has changed," he said.

Rights defenders like Abjan and Janabilova are calling for greater public 
scrutiny of Kazakstan’s prisons, in the shape of monitoring groups made up of 
human rights activists, journalists and relatives.

Janabilova noted that one case, following the Derzhavinka jail riot in July, 
did result in the prosecution of the prison governor, a number of his staff, 
and the deputy head of Akmola region’s penal affairs committee for torture and 
abuse of office. The trial is ongoing.

On November 26, a new group called Action Against Arbitrary Treatment, gave a 
press conference in Almaty at which it made recommendations for greater NGO 
involvement in monitoring the prison system, increased NGO participation in the 
National Mechanism to Prevent Torture, regular audits of the use of prison 
funds to be carried out by Kazakstan’s financial police, opportunities for 
prisoners to file complaints without hindrance, and easier access to the 
prisons for the media.

Artur Nigmetov is a journalist in Kazakstan. 

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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