In Kyrgyzstan, Prison Riot Reveals Cracks In System

A day after a deadly prison riot in the Kyrgyz capital, authorities are divided on both the cause of the violence and its outcome. But the unrest is certain to heat up the debate on corruption and criminality in the country’s prison system.

Officials now admit one inmate was killed during the January 16 riot, which saw security forces storm detention center No. 1 amid a protracted hunger strike over living conditions.

Prison officials say the inmate, 25-year-old Nurbek Alimbaev, died of a drug overdose in an institution where many detainees are involved in illicit narcotics trade. Tabyldy Isaev, an adviser with the State Penetentiary Service, announced on January 17 that a veritable cornucopia of knives, narcotics, cash, and other drug-trade paraphernalia had been confiscated from the inmates.

But ombudsman Tursunbek Akun says Alimbaev died as a result of the injuries he received in brutal fighting between security forces and inmates. Dozens of detainees were injured in the violence, in which beds were set alight and guards reportedly threw smoke bombs to incapacitate the inmates. The fighting grew so intense that, at its peak, it could be heard openly on city streets surrounding the detention center.

Bad Situation Worse

Makhinur Niyazova, one of dozens of relatives gathered outside the building to protest in solidarity with the prisoners, says police and security officials made an already heated situation worse.

“About 50 relatives were standing outside the [detention center] and shouting. The police tried to drive them back, and they in turn tried to tear down the cordon,” Niyazova said. “Then the police drove in two buses and started to pack people into them. At that time we heard explosions and cries for help coming from inside.”

Akun now says more than 30 inmates were brutally beaten, including four who were reported in grave condition. Kyrgyz media have released photographs showing inmates with deep cuts, as well as of blood-splattered furniture. Prison officials say only seven inmates were injured.

Gulshaiyr Abdyrasulova of the Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century) human rights organization said prison officials’ reluctance to give details about the violence raises doubts about what’s really going on behind the walls of the country’s prisons and detention centers.

“You come to the conclusion that something is being hidden,” Abdyrasulova said. “If it had been true that there weren’t any fatalities, then they should have said it openly, right away. It’s forcing me to think: They threw everyone out, cleared everyone out. Are they up to something?”

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