The Life and Death of Detainees in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has two faces. The most familiar to Kyrgyzstan’s international partners is the country that— in a first for Central Asia—is trying out a mixed parliamentary-presidential system, has twice in last decade overthrown authoritarian rulers, and currently has both a reformist interim president and a thriving civil society. Less visible is the Kyrgyzstan where the use of torture is widespread, where deaths in custody occur with uncanny frequency, and where dismal prison conditions are the norm. This Kyrgyzstan remains either not willing or not able to tackle these rampant abuses and punish offenders.

It was sad and scary to hear Kyrgyz president Roza Otunbaeva say in September of this year, “Torture is part of our culture, civilization and way of life in Kyrgyzstan.”

Otunbaeva noted that in 2010 the Office of the Prosecutor General had initiated 37 criminal investigations into torture allegations. The number was matched just seven months into 2011. But while it is important that investigations start, it is even more important that they should yield satisfactory results. According to human rights organizations none of known cases investigated under the “torture” article of Kyrgyzstan ‘s criminal code has resulted in a guilty verdict with adequate punishment. Golos Svobody, a leading Kyrgyz anti-torture NGO, is monitoring 11 torture cases sent to trial in the last two years and has found that “despite the witness testimonies, results of the forensic examinations and obvious traces of torture, the torture cases just get ‘stuck’ in courts.”

There are rumors that in several areas police have established “assistance funds,” deployed to avoid responsibility and prosecution. By one tactic, policemen under investigation for abuse offer money to victims to withdraw their complaints.

The Open Society Justice Initiative has submitted four death-in-custody cases to the UN Human Rights Committee. The widespread and random nature of the abuse is well illustrated by the varied backgrounds but similar fates of these four men. In each case, the families of the victims struggled for years for justice inside the country, to no avail.

The latest complaint, sent to the UN in September 2011, relates to the arbitrary detention and death of the political activist, Bektemir Akunov, who, in the spring of 2007, returned to his home town of Naryn after participating in an opposition protest. He was picked up by police and was dead soon thereafter. The police claimed that Akunov had hung himself in a cell, but medical examinations revealed injuries all over his body.

The three other men were not involved in politics. One of them, Turdubek Akmatov, was taken to the local police station in Mirza-Aki Village, Kyrgyzstan, where he was detained for ten hours. He was interrogated and beaten before being released without charge. He died a few hours later with severe internal injuries.  Rahmonberdi Ernazarov was charged with the serious sexual offense of forced sodomy. Despite an order that he should be transferred to a detention facility, he was held in a police cell with six other men who subjected him to constant abuse. The police did nothing to protect him. Two weeks later he was found in the cell with missing teeth and cuts on his neck, bleeding to death.

In the fourth case, after a dispute on the street, Tashkenbai Moidunov, was taken to a police station in Bazar-Korgon, Kyrgyzstan. An hour later he was dead. An ambulance doctor who examined him found finger marks around his neck and asked if he had been strangled. The police said that Moidunov had suffered a heart attack, and then changed their story to say he hung himself.

As in the previous cases, the government claimed that it was not responsible for the death of the victim, failed to conduct effective investigation, and did not provide remedies and compensation for the family.

In Moidunov’s case, the UN Human Rights Committee has already rendered a decision. The committee found that Moidunov was killed in police custody and that Kyrgyzstan had violated the right to life, protection from torture, and the right to effective remedies. It has called for a proper investigation, prosecution and reparations. But almost three months have passed since the UN decision, and so far Kyrgyzstan has not taken any action.

The government’s failure to confront the problem flies in the face of the abundant evidence of the use of torture gathered by local and international NGOs. Beyond the death-in-custody cases, the aftermath of the June 2010 violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz is still marred by flawed investigations and widespread abuse. For the first time in Kyrgyz history lawyers defending ethnic Uzbeks are openly attacked in the courtroom. Despite its democratic credentials, Kyrgyzstan also has a political prisoner—human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence after a sham trial and torture.

In fact, the use of torture is so widespread that the courts simply ignore even visible traces of torture in the courtroom. Human Rights Watch reported credible information about the use of torture and ill-treatment in at least 65 cases. “The main methods of ill-treatment include prolonged, severe beatings with rubber truncheons or rifle butts, punching, and kicking. Victims also reported being tortured by suffocation with gas masks or plastic bags put on their heads; being burned with cigarettes, and being strangled with a strap. In most cases, the main purpose was to obtain confessions to solve specific crimes, but ethnic hatred seemed to have played a significant role as well.”

The time has come for the Kyrgyz government to take action on its promises. It is time to investigate all death-in-custody cases, whenever they happened, to create an independent mechanism on the investigation of torture allegations, to implement its own laws against the admissibility of evidence extracted under duress, and to provide remedies to the victims.

Editor’s Note (February 1, 2018): On January 27th, 2017, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court ordered the government to pay compensation to Tashkenbaj Moidunov’s family. After 13 years of seeking justice, the family received 200,000 soms (about € 2,400) in November of 2017. While not sufficient, the ruling marks the first time a top court has recognized the binding authority of HRC decisions.

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