No Political Will to Fix Kazakstan's Broken Prison System
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||19 March 2012|
|Citation / Document Symbol||RCA Issue 672|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, No Political Will to Fix Kazakstan's Broken Prison System, 19 March 2012, RCA Issue 672, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4f6852872.html [accessed 20 June 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.|
A leading human rights defender in Kazakstan, Yevgeny Zhovtis, has spoken of his experiences in prison, which lead him to conclude that there is no political will to reform the penal system.
As the political elite jockeys for power ahead of the anticipated departure of 71-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbaev, repression is still the main response to all sorts of dissent, he said.
Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and one of the country's most prominent advocates of civil rights, was freed on February 17 from a prison colony in the town of Oskemen (Ust Kamenogorsk) in north-eastern Kazakstan, after serving two-and-a-half years of a four-year conviction for manslaughter.
He was found guilty of dangerous driving leading to a fatality in 2009, at the end of a trial lasting just two days in which prosecutors argued that the accident was technically avoidable. His lawyers raised questions about procedural violations which they believed deprived him of key legal rights and rendered the conviction unsafe.
That, and the fact that Zhovtis had already agreed an out-of-court financial settlement with the victim's family, meaning that criminal proceedings could have been dropped, strengthened concerns that the authorities pressed for a conviction in order to sideline an outspoken critic of their human rights record.
The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch described the proceedings as a "choreographed political trial".
In an interview for IWPR, Zhovtis spoke about his own prison experience, the way the penitentiary system is managed and the political situation he found on his release.
IWPR: How would you describe the current state of the prisons?
Yevgeny Zhovtis: After two and a half years, I have a very negative view of the system. It's a system that is fundamentally incapable of correcting or rehabilitating anyone.
It could be described as a breeding-ground for hatred of men in uniform. Within several days, anyone – even a well-balanced, quiet person with a positive outlook – will turn into an aggressive, angry individual who hates the police.
As well as maintaining order by force, the system is geared towards demeaning human dignity. There's a complete lack of any kind of human relationship or trust between prisoners and warders.
The warders are mostly uneducated, underpaid and frustrated with their working conditions and long hours. They work from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, plus at least half days on Saturdays. If they work a 24-hour shift, they often return to the job after only two or one days off, although by law they should have three days before their next shift.
If the prison is on high alert, as is often the case, staff have to work all weekend and all public holidays.
It's a military-style system with its superiors and subordinates and loutish, abusive behaviour.
IWPR: Is it possible to change this system in any way?
Zhovtis: The punitive, repressive system we inherited from the Soviet Union cannot be reformed unless there is a radical rethink of the aims and objectives of the penitentiary and criminal justice systems. As long as criminal law is repressive in nature, the justice system is accusatory, and the main way of dealing with crime is by locking people up rather than considering alternative forms of punishment, it is hard to see things changing for the better.
Almost all detention facilities in Kazakstan were built during the Soviet era. Conditions, revolving around the unit-based holding structure [in barracks rather than cells], are far from civilised.
The entire system needs to be overhauled, but to do this there needs to be a clearly-articulated political will, which is currently lacking.
IWPR: Much has happened in Kazakstan since you were imprisoned in 2009. How would you describe the situation now?
Zhovtis: It's a tense political situation because of Janaozen [where 14 demonstrators were killed when police opened fire on December 16], and because of the arrests of opposition politicians and civil society activists. [See Clampdown on Dissent in Kazakstan http://iwpr.net/report-news/clampdown-dissent-kazakstan .]
Most of the tensions, however, stem from the intensifying struggle between factions in the ruling elite which are gearing up for the moment when President Nazarbaev's successor is nominated. This struggle will determine the political and economic direction that Kazakstan will take.
Against this backdrop of rising political tensions, the authorities are naturally relying on force to control the situation. Respect for human rights will inevitably fall by the wayside.
IWPR: With a growing number of political prisoners, what have the authorities achieved by putting critics behind bars?
Zhovtis: They are pursuing several related aims, in my opinion. First, they are clearing the political arena of opposition members and dissident leaders, in anticipation of the power struggle that will come when the president is weakened or leaves office.
Second, they want to intimidate the opposition, activists, journalists and the population as a whole because of the rising mood of protest, particularly as a second wave of economic crisis may be on its way.
Third, they are also seeking to strengthen the state's policing capacity so as to wield maximum social control to avert unexpected developments similar to those we've seen in the Arab world.
IWPR: What is your view of western governments' efforts to stop Kazakstan persecuting its critics?
Zhovtis: These western campaigns have unfortunately not achieved any positive results. They have sometimes been counterproductive, as the Kazak government has been able to portray them as external interference in our domestic affairs, and to accuse the international community of double standards. The authorities have exploited these arguments in a society still dominated by Soviet ideology and anti-western views.
The government has the support of Russia and other partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation [regional security bloc], and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [a similar grouping that also includes China]. With support like that, the government's rhetoric has gone down well with the domestic public.
How effective can the West's support [for democracy] be when there are also geopolitical considerations like the war on terror and its economic ties with this resource-rich country? Factors like that affect decision-making by western leaders. They may have contributed to the decision to award Kazakstan the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, at the same time as the government was pressuring the opposition.
IWPR: What sustained you while you were in prison?
Zhovtis: The knowledge that I was in the right, my stubbornness, the support of family, friends, colleagues and many other people inside and outside the country. In many cases, I was supported by people I didn't know and had never met.
IWPR: In a statement after your release, you said that before returning to work you needed time to restore your health. Will you return to lead the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law?
Zhovtis: I haven't yet decided what exactly I will do next. I have a number of ideas, which will become clearer once I return to work in mid-April.