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Prison conditions fuel revolts, observers say

A series of prison protests over the past month in Kyrgyzstan has highlighted the need for reform in the country's burgeoning penitentiary system, where poor living conditions, disease and malnutrition fuel protests, say experts.

The situation in the penal system was dramatically brought to public attention when the head of the parliament's committee on defence and law enforcement, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was killed on 20 October while visiting the Moldovanovka prison near the capital, Bishkek.

Four people in the delegation led by the slain member of parliament were killed in the prison, while the head of Kyrgyzstan's prisons administration, Ikmatulla Polotov, escorting the group, was seriously injured and later died. The group had gone to the prison to inspect living conditions and listen to the demands of protesting convicts.

Prior to the killings, inmates in several prisons in the north of the country, the area that hosts the majority of correctional institutions in the former Soviet republic, had been protesting for a while demanding better living conditions and healthcare.

In a couple of prisons, including the Novopokrovka and Moldovanovka jails, corrections personnel had to leave, fearing for their lives, as prisoners rioted against poor nutrition and health services.

The protests highlighted the root cause of the problem in the penal system - an acute lack of resources. The government is currently allocating no more than US $0.45 to feed one prisoner per day, while according to national standards it should be at least $1.40. Prison officials say that they have long been underfinanced by the state budget and receive less than one-third of their needs.

On a par with the lack of resources, penal institutions have become a major propagator of drug abuse, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) in the country. "One-fourth of all TB-infected people in Kyrgyzstan live in the penitentiary system. At the same time, government provides only 30 percent of all necessary funds for their treatment," Raushan Abdildaeva, a prison administration official working on penal reform, said on Monday in Bishkek.

The Kyrgyz justice ministry estimates that of some 17,000 prisoners, around 2,600 are currently infected with TB, while in 2003 that figure stood at 2,000. Statistics suggest there are some 130 convicts living with HIV/AIDS, while different estimates suggest that upwards of 50 percent of prisoners may be abusing drugs.

There were 14,351 convicts in Kyrgzystan before 1991 when it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the peak came in 1998 when the number of prisoners surpassed 21,000. This was because that year, amnesty was not approved by the country's leadership. In an effort to ease the burden of a rising prison population, the authorities conducted regular amnesties almost every year.

With the state providing very little money to the penal system, international assistance has become the only hope for any change. "Most improvements we do now are thanks to grants provided by donors. And we have the impression that penitentiary problems are only of concern to foreign donors," Sergey Sidorov, a spokesman for the corrections department, said.

"We are providing medicine and renovating the TB hospital thanks to their assistance, whereas the state budget does not provide even a penny for such work," Sidorov maintained.

Officials say that reforming the country's penal code and introducing alternative methods of punishment are the key to tackling prison problems. "Actually 98 percent of all criminal punishment is imprisonment and only 2 percent get alternative punishments," Dilyarom Nizamova, deputy director of local NGO the "Centre for Legal Assistance to
Convicts, explained.

"You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that if you reduce your prison population, then the money saved can be spent on improving the living conditions of convicts," Sidorov agreed.

This being the case, experts advocate for change in legislation, with a draft bill that incorporates introduction of alternative correctional options awaiting approval from lawmakers. "If parliamentarians support us and approve this draft law, it would allow us to reduce the prison population and not to increase it further," Marat Jamankulov, head of the Penitentiary Reform Department at the justice ministry, said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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