A Cossack leader imprisoned apparently for political reasons was released. Another Cossack activist whose detention appeared to be politically motivated was allegedly tortured. There were allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment in police custody and in the penitentiary system. Prison conditions amounting to ill-treatment reportedly resulted in a number of deaths in custody. At least 50 people were sentenced to death and there were at least 12 executions. A new bicameral parliament was inaugurated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in January. In the same month, the President created, by decree, a Constitutional Council to replace the Constitutional Court which he had effectively disbanded in 1995. Nikolai Gunkin, a Cossack leader who had been sentenced in late 1995 to a three-month prison term for "organizing an unsanctioned meeting", amid allegations that the prosecution was politically motivated (see Amnesty International Report 1996), was released in January at the end of his sentence. In August, police in Almaty, the capital, arrested Nina Sidorova, a Cossack activist and associate of Nikolai Gunkin. She was charged with defamation of the judge at Nikolai Gunkin's trial and, in relation to incidents which occurred in 1995, hooliganism and assault of procuracy officials. There were allegations that the charges were brought for political reasons following Nina Sidorova's attempt on the day of her arrest to obtain legal registration for an organization promoting the interests of Kazakstan's Cossack minority. Nina Sidorova was detained for over a month, during which time she was allegedly severely beaten. A sufferer from acute claustrophobia, she was also ill-treated by being placed periodically in small, unventilated and unlit punishment cells. In September, Nina Sidorova's lawyer, Maria Larshina, was assaulted outside her home by an unknown man, in an incident reminiscent of the treatment of the wife of Nikolai Gunkin's lawyer in 1995 (see Amnesty International Report 1996). In December, Nina Sidorova was given a two-year prison sentence but was immediately amnestied and released. Information was received about other cases of alleged torture and ill-treatment in police custody and in pre-trial detention. One such case concerned Valery Zippa, who allegedly had been severely beaten during interrogation by police in 1994, and as a result required surgery to remove his spleen. Information was also received about torture and ill-treatment in the penitentiary system, including allegations that guards at a prison in Arkalyk beat prisoners, who then mutilated themselves with knives in protest. These and other prisoners also complained of unwarranted confinement in punishment cells, sometimes in freezing temperatures or complete darkness. Poor conditions amounting to ill-treatment in pre-trial detention and in penitentiaries were also reported. In April, officials publicly admitted that Kazakstan's prisons were overcrowded and disease-ridden. Prisoners suffering from tuberculosis were allegedly not segregated from the rest of the prison population, and it was even alleged that, as a form of punishment for misbehaviour, officers would deliberately expose prisoners to the risk of infection by placing them in cells containing prisoners seriously ill with tuberculosis. Deaths of prisoners from wasting conditions associated with starvation were also alleged. Information was received early in the year about harsh conditions in a prison for male juveniles near Almaty, where at least four inmates were known to have died in the latter part of 1995, apparently as a consequence of their treatment there. In June, the authorities declared an amnesty for nearly 20,000 prisoners, about one quarter of the entire prison population, because of budget constraints, but in August it was reported that the number of prisoners to be released had been reduced to around 8,500, for undisclosed reasons. The use of the death penalty remained extensive. At least 50 people were sentenced to death and at least 12 executions took place. Five death sentences were commuted during the year. Amnesty International sought further information about the basis for the charges against Nina Sidorova. The organization called for an investigation into allegations that she had been ill-treated by police, and for an investigation into the assault on Maria Larshina. It also called on the authorities to investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and to take effective steps to end the problem of poor prison conditions amounting to ill-treatment. Amnesty International called for an investigation into the deaths in detention of male juvenile prisoners in Almaty. The organization continued to call for commutation of all death sentences and the complete abolition of the death penalty. In response to a statement by Amnesty International in March deploring the very high number of death sentences and executions reported for 1995 (see Amnesty International Report 1996), officials publicly rejected the figure of 101 executions cited by the organization, claiming that the true number for 1995 was 63, but did not provide detailed information to support this. In February and March, an Amnesty International delegate visited Kazakstan and held talks with government and law enforcement officials and members of the judiciary. In July, the organization published a report, Kazakstan: Ill-treatment and the death penalty – a summary of concerns.

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