The President of Kazakhstan, Tokayev, called for more controls in Kazakh prisons, where often the human rights of detainees are not respected, as torture is still practiced. The same declared his intentions in a tweet on the day of July 31, in which he invited the Public Prosecutor to start investigations in prisons to bring to light the cases of torture.
The breakthrough proclaimed by the new president follows a fairly recent event, which has shaken public opinion, or a series of videos that have been widely shared by the network and that show the torture inflicted on prisoners. On 26 July, 40 videos were published showing incidents of violence in Zarechnoye prisons, a village 60 km from Almaty.
In the film that has raised outrage and outcry, the victim is seen tied up and suspended in the air, with his hands tied behind his back, a position that inflicts much pain. The torture was apt to extort a declaration. This can be deduced from the audio of the video, in which one of the torturers asks the victim “if he would have written it”, finding only the obstinate opposition of the latter. Police threats referred to the order to withdraw the appeal presented by the prisoner to the public prosecutor and to declare his innocence. Following what happened, an investigation was induced at the request of the prosecutor’s office in the Almaty region and authorized by the Minister of the Interior, following which seven prison employees were fired.
The reality of prisons in Kazakhstan
What happened in the Zarechnoye prison is not an isolated case. The issue has a larger dimension which is largely ignored. There are several testimonies, including other films, which bring out this uneasy situation in the country. Some inmates have even threatened suicide due to harsh and inhuman conditions in prisons. The husband of a prisoner, who was to provide his testimony regarding torture wounds inflicted on his wife, died in the hospital just before the trial. Another witness in the case died in suicide during the same period. Relatives of the victims, according to a human rights activist in Kazakhstan, Elena Semenova, are discouraged from taking concrete measures to protect relatives in prison: even sending some protest letters could compromise the life of the detainee. Azamat Shambilov, director of the International Prison Reform Office in Central Asia, said that cases of torture and mutilation increased in prisons in Kazakhstan compared to previous years.
According to the 2017/2018 report by Amnesty International, in 2016 the General Prosecutor’s Office received 700 reports of torture cases in prisons, while in the last five years 158 officers have been accused of abuse of power and torture. One of the victims, Alksei Ushenin, had been subjected to torture and other degrading treatment. In 2011, he claimed to have been tortured for two days in a row, during which the authorities would have covered his face with a plastic bag until he was suffocating and causing him to lose consciousness, they would have beaten him, turned off cigarette butts on his skin causing him burns and raped with a bat. All with the aim of forcing him to declare the false crime of theft. Following his complaint, an investigation was initiated which was conducted impartially. The same is an exception with respect to the countless cases that have passed into the background, and the Kazakh society has long awaited a reform of the judicial system and prisons, a real scourge that does not make the population feel protected. A nerve center for political leaders if they want to aim for greater popularity.
A humanitarian turning point as a social compromise
Tokayev took office in March this year, following the sudden resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The actions taken to combat torture are a novelty for the Kazakh population, as the previous government expressed itself only with regard to mistreatment in juvenile detention. Tokayev’s move must be framed in the need to emancipate himself from the idea of being “the heir” chosen by Nazarbayev, and therefore a manipulable figure that would allow the latter to manage the country’s policies behind the scenes, quietly.
As stated by political columnist Dosym Satpayev, “the second president is under strict control of the first“. It would seem that this phrase reflects the thought of a large part of Kazakh society, in light of the not very distant events of the last election. In fact, as explained in another IARI article, the election of the new president did not take place in a completely transparent manner and in line with international standards: he came to power in an interim government immediately after the announced resignation and when the population went to vote, hoping to participate in the first free elections after 29 years of Nazarbayev’s government, Kazakhstan was overwhelmed by a series of animated protests, in which protesters were even arrested.
In those days, the Kazakh population, anemic for decades, seemed to have finally come out of a long lethargy, made up of resignation towards a system that has always prevented the holding of free elections. Therefore, when the population saw the possibility of a free vote dissolve again, it was not impassive. However, Tokayev came to power, disputing public opinion and stating that the elections were democratic and in line with international standards. The express will of Tokayev to face once and for all the scourge that afflicts the prisons in Kazakhstan has all the air of an attempt to recover the legitimacy and the consensus from the population, to redeem the image of a despot President and corrupt, legitimate heir to Nazarbayev’s policies, a reputation that accompanied his mandate even before he came to power.