Setback for Penal Reform in Kazakstan
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||25 August 2011|
|Citation / Document Symbol||RCA Issue 655|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Setback for Penal Reform in Kazakstan, 25 August 2011, RCA Issue 655, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e5748342.html [accessed 24 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Kazakstan's decision to hand control of the penal system back to the interior ministry is a sign the authorities are taking a harder line in response to widespread prison riots, human rights defenders say. They say the move is major a setback for efforts to reform Kazakstan's penal system.
The change reverses a major reform carried out in 2002, when Kazakstan became the first Central Asian state to stop the interior ministry running the prisons – a legacy of the Soviet era – and assign the task instead to the ministry of justice as part of moves towards a fairer, more humane system that is open to greater scrutiny.
Penal reform advocates argue that since the interior ministry's primary function is to control the police force which makes arrests, this conflicts with the very different role of overseeing penitentiaries, especially if the aim is to rehabilitate convicts as well as punish them.
The change is being pushed through with unusual haste. The transfer process began on August 1, just four days after President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a decree mandating it, and is expected to be completed by mid-September.
The move comes in the wake of a series of prison disturbances across Kazakstan. (IWPR reported on them in New Wave of Prison Rebellions in Kazakstan.)
The authorities accuse inmates of stirring up trouble to force concessions from the prisons agency, known by its acronym KUIS.
Human rights activists argue that the unrest reflects the brutality of prison conditions.
After similar riots last year, the authorities prosecuted several warders for torture. But activists say there is still much work to be done to root out systemic abuses in the penal system – and putting the police ministry back in charge is unlikely to help.
Ardak Janabilova, head of a public commission that monitors prisons in and around the city of Almaty, points out that "as a model, interior ministry control the penitentiary system is mainly used in undemocratic countries".
While Nazarbaev's decree refers only to attempts to improve prison management, and KUIS spokesman Galymjan Khasenov assured the public that everything was under control, the recent unrest has clearly rattled the authorities.
A senior official from KUIS who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR that the transfer was a direct response to the riots.
"At times [the situation] was getting out of control. The government therefore decided to take radical measures to restore stability in the prisons. The interior ministry has experience of dealing with such conflicts," he said.
The Coalition Against Torture, which includes groups like the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, the Committee for Monitoring Criminal Law Reform and Human Rights and others, has expressed serious concern about the changeover to interior ministry control, and have urged the authorities to reconsider their decision.
In a statement released at an August 9 press conference, the coalition said the move would not contribute either "to addressing problems in the penal system in an effective way, or to ensuring the protection of basic human rights".
Speaking at the press conference, the Central Asian head of the London-based Penal Reform International, Saule Mektepbaeva, said the running of prisons had to be kept separate from policing.
"Prison management needs to involve psychologists and social workers – it's different from the work of the police," she said.
Another speaker, Rosa Akylbekova, acting head of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, said the government's decision was at odds with its own penal reform agenda and also its stated policy position on consulting the public before changing the legal system.
As things stood, she said, everyone had been caught unawares by the presidential decree, and it was unlikely Nazarbaev's decree could be reversed. The most human rights groups could aim for was to minimise the damage through a dialogue with government officials.
In that light, she Akylbekova, "Duties could possibly be moved around so that facilities that need to be guarded would be under interior ministry control, whereas correctional work – dealing with inmates, including those in temporary detention – should be assigned to a civilian institution."
The KUIS official interviewed by IWPR insisted maintaining order was paramount.
"As for making prison conditions harsher, I don't think that's going to happen. But they won't be made any easier, that's for sure. Right now the task is to create stability. We don't need to think about making things more humane for the moment."
Yevgeny Golendukhin, who heads a commission monitoring prisons in North Kazakstan province, said
"The persistent disturbances, riots, jailbreaks and violence in the prisons is a crisis of management, so the authorities have decided on this reorganisation," he said. "Of course it's a retrograde step; there's nothing about making the system more humane here. The authorities have decided to deal with the troublesome convicts by radical – for which read tough – means."
Prisoners' rights activist Vadim Kuramshin warned that the treatment of inmates was likely to deteriorate significantly.