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Turkmenistan: Hundreds Of Prisoners Break Out Of Jail

  • Bruce Pannier

There was a major prison breakout earlier this month in Turkmenistan. There may be as many as 1,000 inmates now on the loose in southwest Central Asia. Turkmen police are searching for the escapees but it may not be possible to locate even most of them. RFE/RL looks at the event and interviews some former Turkmen prisoners who shed light on the conditions in Turkmen prisons.

Prague, 21 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There are several hundred escaped prisoners roaming southwestern Central Asia. Between 800 and 1,000 inmates at Turkmenistan's southern Tejen prison broke loose on 8 November and such information as can be obtained on the matter indicates that only four have been recaptured. That so many are still at large may be surprising but that anyone would want to escape from a Turkmen prison is not.

The jail break occurred when some prisoners got hold of a truck that was in the prison yard and drove the truck through the prison wall at three different points. Prisoners, many of them barefoot, dashed for freedom and having achieved this goal some made their way to nearby villages where they asked residents if they had any old shoes they could part with. Having secured footwear these escapees, along with others who did not stop for shoes, made their way to local railway stations where they headed in different directions.

Since only four prisoners were reported recaptured the plan seems to have worked and many are believed to now be in neighboring countries. There are murderers and thieves among the escapees but, according to today's edition of the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta," political prisoners as well. The Turkmen government sent Interior Ministry special police to the area to help in the hunt but the search is hampered because police are not sure who is at large. Apparently the prisoners burned the prison administration building with all the records before they escaped.

Most prisoners would likely prefer liberty to confinement. In Turkmenistan, though, this is doubly true. There living in jail takes on a whole different meaning and conditions in the Tejen prison illustrate this.

The Tejen prison is meant to hold 800 prisoners, approximately the number that escaped. Reports show that on 8 November, the day of the escape, there were at least three times that many, and by some accounts 10 times the number of prisoners the facility was built to hold.

Chary Annamuradov spent 2 1/2 years in a Turkmen prison. He lives in a European country now after foreign governments pressured the Turkmen authorities into releasing him. He described what inmates could look forward to in a Turkmen correctional facility: "Conditions.... They do not give any clothing, they do not give anything to eat, there's almost nothing to eat."

Gulgeldy Annaniyazov was also in a Turkmen prison near Turkmenbashi City and was released after 3 1/2 years through the intervention of the United States government. He also lives in Europe but though he said prisoners at his facility were given food and there was water available, but what he described did not sound very appetizing. "For 8,000 inmates in the prison there was one water faucet. We had really no food to speak of in our prison. They gave us food but first you had to clean the cockroaches and worms out of it, then you could eat."

Simply being imprisoned in Turkmenistan's deserts, which account for about 90 percent of Turkmenistan's land and where nearly all the prisons are located, would take its toll on a person. Temperatures in the summer can climb to 55 degrees Celsius and according to Annamuradov, it was hotter in special holding areas during the summer months. "In the isolation rooms, 4 by 6 meters, there should be 15 people. That is in a jail, not a hard-labor penal colony. There are usually 40 people [in the isolation room] and [from May to September] temperatures get to 65 degrees Celsius [149 degrees Fahrenheit]."

Provisions for prisoners are allotted on the number of inmates the prison was built to hold, meaning that in the case of the Tejen prison, thousands were surviving on rations intended for 800. Some inmates are more fortunate in that they have relatives who are willing and able to bring food and bribe guards to deliver to their incarcerated kinsmen.

Since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991 no monitoring group has been able to check on conditions in Turkmenistan's prisons. The tales of former prisoners indicate these prisons are "hellholes" in the truest sense of the word. With that in mind it should prove no easy task to capture the escaped prisoners and return them to confinement.

(Rozinar Khoudaiberdiev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)