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?"
Coordinated Hunger Strikes
The riots came on the heels of a series of coordinated hunger strikes in prisons throughout Kyrgyzstan.
Hundreds of inmates in seven Kyrgyz prisons launched hunger strikes in December to demand better living conditions and meals. The simultaneous action fed the conviction among many prison authorities that the protest was organized from outside.
Even ombudsman Akun's own claim -- that the strikes were aimed at protesting the resignation of a parliamentary speaker accused of ties to criminal groups -- feeds into an overarching narrative of the Kyrgyz prison system as an essential link in the country's smuggling and crime networks.
Turat Madylbekov, the head of the Kyrgyz parliamentary committee on law and order, said there is little doubt the country's prisons generate significant internal economies based on prostitution, drug sales, and other crimes.
"Nobody knows how openly prostitution is allowed in prisons, but we have information about a large amount of drugs being brought into prisons and sold there," Madylbekov said. "As a result, the prisons have a lot of money swirling around them."
At the same time, concerns have been raised -- albeit more mutedly -- about human rights and living conditions in Kyrgyzstan's prison system.
The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, said during a visit to the country in December that there was "a serious lack" of investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment in Kyrgyzstan.
His comments appeared to be aimed, at least in part, at one of the country's top prison officials -- Sheishenbek Baizakov, the head of the Interior Ministry's state penitentiary system.
'Deterioration Of Conditions'
Just days after Mendez's visit, dozens of relatives of the hunger-striking prisoners picketed the state penitentiary headquarters in Bishkek to demand Baizakov's resignation.
Saying a number of the striking inmates had been subject to ill-treatment or convicted of crimes they didn't commit, they said Baizakov -- who this week was reappointed as head of the penitentiary service -- was personally responsible for "the deterioration of conditions in penitentiaries and abuses of prisoners' rights."
But Akun, who has frequently intervened on prison issues, defends Baizakov's record, saying he's worked to push through much-needed reforms.
"He's worked in a very constructive way. He gets pulled apart by parliament deputies from one side or another," Akun said. "Many of his former prison bosses are currently in the White House [presidential administration], trying to get his post. But still there's a huge amount of work going on. Before there was no money allocated [for prisons].
"Now the money is there and repair work is under way. There's money for tuberculosis, money for other things. Many things are being done. He's been working with the ombudsman, with NGOs. I've never seen other heads in that post who worked with us like he does. He accepts our criticism. He works."
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in Bishkek by Kybanych Joldoshev and Bakyt Asanov