Prague, 4 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Machine guns and knives, mobile phones, and computers with Internet connection, large amounts of money in U.S. dollars and euros as well as narcotics -- all are in the possession of a "vor v zakone", or a criminal kingpin, in Kyrgyz jails.
Consider, for example, Aziz Batukaev, who served a term in Prison No. 31 in the settlement of Moldovanovka near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek until he was transferred to another prison on 1 November.
Speaking to journalists on 1 November in the wake of October unrest in Kyrgyz penal colonies, Deputy Prosecutor-General Abibulla Abdykaparov said Batukaev had occupied a whole floor of his prison. That included 16 rooms, where he kept three mares and 15 goats.
Abdykaparov explained that the convict used to drink the domestic animals’ milk to heal his ulcer. His wife and daughter-in-law as well as a bodyguard -- not convicts themselves -- were with him when the troops burst into the prison building.
The troops also found pictures of Chechen leaders Shamil Basaev and Aslan Maskhadov, and a flag of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, in the cell of Batukaev, who is of Chechen origin himself.
Abdykaparov said the government troops were in a deep shock when they viewed the conditions the criminal kingpin had created for himself in prison. In other parts of the same prison, however, there were other inmates suffering from hunger and diseases.
Those ordinary prisoners say that harsh living conditions made them riot -- first in early September, then in October. The third wave of unrest hit prisons near Bishkek and in the south this week and ended with the death of four inmates.
Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of the Erkindik opposition party, is a former political dissident who served several years in prison before former President Askar Akaev was ousted in March. He told RFE/RL about conditions for ordinary prisoners.
"Conditions are extremely harsh, firstly, because of lack of food. What they get is [called] 'balanda,' which is not only not nutritious, but also kills people. In some prisons, inmates have no food at all or get it once a week. The other problem is that prisons are overcrowded. So there is simply no air. I experienced that myself. In the cells of five-six people, we were 17-18 inmates," Turgunaliev said.
Turgunaliev added that the economic difficulties Kyrgyzstan has faced for the last decade have had an impact on the penitentiary system, too.
An inmate who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity from a prison near Bishkek, agrees. "We cover 85 percent of our needs ourselves," he said. "We get everything including clothing, bed sheets, and pillowcases. We ask our relatives to bring it. We also make some things, like backgammon desks, sell them to the outside world and thus provide for ourselves."
The problem does not seem to be new for Kyrgyzstan’s leadership. The current system of controlling prisons as well as governing inmates was formed decades ago. It was based mainly on the hierarchy of the criminal world.
In the Soviet Union, the criminal world had its own hierarchy, rules, and jargon. "Vor v zakone" was the highest title and meant a kind of criminal aristocracy who established a thieves’ "code of honor" and served as its guardians. They and "avtoritety," or criminal authority, ruled inmates in prisons.
The prison administration usually collaborated with vory and avtoritety and often sought their support in resolving disputes among inmates. Jailed criminal leaders, in turn, were allowed to lead a comfortable life behind bars.
Turgunaliev said this system continues to dominate prison life in many former Soviet republics. "The problem of penitentiary facilities is rooted in the Soviet Gulag system," he said. "All post-Soviet countries with the possible exception of the Baltic states still have the same system. It’s stayed untouched."
Vory v zakone and avtoritety still seem to enjoy close ties with authorities in Kyrgyz prisons. Former prisoner Turgunaliev said both parties, the prison administration and the jailed criminal leaders, benefit from collaboration. It makes control over inmates easier and it also brings financial profit, he said.
"Prison facilities are a center of corruption. I know narcotics, including ‘gera’ [heroin] is brought there. I saw myself how they make 50-70 ‘lyap’ [portions] from a gram of gera. Each lyap cost [$1.5] in 2001. I don’t know the current prices," Tugunaliev said.
Turgunaliev added that a gram of heroin brings at least $60 dollars of net profit and the prison administration usually gets a portion of it. "There are two kinds of narcotic trafficking [in prison]," he said. "The first is that of vory v zakone. The other one is controlled by the prison administration. Usually, one of the deputies of a prison head is in charge of the traffic. They get tens of millions [soms of profit] every month. I emphasize once again: tens of millions."
Prison officials have denied involvement in the narcotics trafficking.
However, Deputy Justice Minister Sergei Zubov said on 1 November that Batukaev’s luxury life in Moldovanovka is a result of the "absolute corruption of the penitentiary system."
Kyrgyz authorities admit the penal system has problems and have declared their intention to fight corruption. The first reform of the penitentiary system came in 2002 when the government decided to transfer authority over the prisons from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. But the move has yet to show clear results.
The close ties between the criminal world and officials in the penitentiary system is considered a significant contributor to corruption in the prison system and a major impediment to prison reform.
After the October prison riots, President Kurmanbek Bakiev promised to allocate 10 million soms ($250,000) to the penitentiary system. But as Meilikozu Mamataliev, head of the Jalal-Abad prison, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, they have yet to see the funding. Inmates at the Jalal-Abad prison rioted earlier this week.
(RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service correspondent Cholpon Orozobekova in Bishkek contributed to this report).