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Central Asia: RFE/RL Interviews Analyst On Prison Populations

Prisoners rioting in Kyrgyzstan in October 2005 (AFP) On 6 January, the International Center for Prison Studies, a London-based NGO, released a report on the world's prison population. According to the center, some 9 million people are imprisoned worldwide, with Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine having the largest per capita prison populations in RFE/RL's broadcast region. Muhammad Tahir, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, spoke with center research associate Anton Sheleupanov about the difficulty of getting information about prison conditions in Central Asia.

Listen to the complete interview in RealAudio or Windows Media .

RFE/RL: In your last report on the world prison population, you put Turkmenistan near the top of the list. What do you think is the reason it has been placed at the top?

Anton Sheleupanov: It is entirely to do with the sentencing policy of each country. However, some countries make available statistics on their sentencing policies. Turkmenistan -- the prison system there is quite a closed one so we know very little about it. They don't make those figures available. They only make an absolute figure available and that is the only official figure we can go on. And from that, knowing the population of the country, we can work out the prison population rate -- placing it in the top 10.

RFE/RL: So this is the official figure that was given to you?

Sheleupanov: That's right, yes.

RFE/RL: Did you or your colleagues manage to visit Turkmenistan?

Sheleupanov: The researcher who compiled the report has worked in prisons in many countries. I don't know whether he's been to Turkmenistan or not. I think that given the nature of the political situation there, the sort of things that you would be able to have access to in the prison system might not necessarily be a full reflection of what the entire picture looks like.

RFE/RL: What do you think is the true picture in the country? It could be worse or better than this report indicates?

Sheleupanov: The way we compile these figures is...while we do use official figures, we wouldn't publish a figure unless we were reasonably certain that it was a reliable figure. So, I don't know whether it is 100 percent accurate, but it is as accurate as anybody is going to get and it is probably the most accurate figure that is available in the world at the moment.

RFE/RL: Do you know anything about the conditions in Turkmen jails?

Sheleupanov: We don't monitor conditions in prisons. We are an organization which (a) looks at the trends of imprisonment and (b) at the management in prisons. Turkmenistan is a country which, while there is some international cooperation going on, mostly within the Central Asian arena, doesn't work very closely with many international organizations. So it would be very difficult.

RFE/RL: If you compare the cooperation of all the Central Asia countries with international organizations such as yours, what would your comments be about Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan?

Sheleupanov: In each country, the picture is different. I'd say Kyrgyzstan has been very good at the prison-health aspect. They have worked very hard to address the issues of tuberculosis and HIV in prisons. They are one of the few countries in the world -- admirably -- to introduce legislation to allow for measures which reduce the harm caused by drugs in prisons. Not very many countries are willing to do that, but Kyrgyzstan has been a country which has realized how serious the problem is. Kazakhstan -- again, there have been a lot of very interesting pieces of work going on there and I think the general trend in the country is toward reform, toward extensive prison reform. They have -- without any international pressure from organizations such as the Council of Europe because they don't belong to it -- of their own accord transferred their prison system from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry, which is a very important step toward demilitarization. Uzbekistan -- the political situation there is difficult, but there have been some efforts on the part of the country to work with some medical organizations, including the World Health Organization, to address the problems of tuberculosis and HIV in prisons.

RFE/RL: Again, to come back to Turkmenistan, what was the main reason for people being sentenced to Turkmen jails?

Sheleupanov: As I said earlier, we don't know. They don't make available their sentencing data.

RFE/RL: Recently we have been witnessing lots of problems in Kyrgyzstan jails. We understand three MPs have been murdered in different cases. Do you not think that represents a worsening situation?

Sheleupanov: I think that one shouldn't necessarily make a direct link between issues of prison management and control and the wider political situation in the country. The recent troubles in Kyrgyz jails are indicative of the fact that there are managerial issues there that need to be addressed. But, in a way, it is irrelevant whether it is a member of parliament or whether it is a visitor or whether it is a member of staff or whether it is a prisoner that dies in a situation such as this. Clearly, something has gone wrong in terms of management and it is a human life -- it doesn't matter who it is. And the management issues in the prison need to be addressed first and foremost, not the political issues.

RFE/RL: What kind of images are you getting from Uzbek prisons after the Andijon events?

Sheleupanov: Once again, Uzbekistan is another country whose prison system is quite closed. So it is difficult to comment accurately. We look at data which is concrete and definite and if we don't have concrete data it is very difficult to comment. I would say, though, that a very important aspect of prison reform is making prison systems more open, allowing them to engage more with civil society, and introducing proper systems for accountability both within the system and publicly and internationally. That is very significant.