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'A Real Man Must Stand Up' -- Kazakh Poet, Dissident Returns To Solitary Confinement

Aron Atabek in October 2007
Aron Atabek in October 2007
On January 31, prominent Kazakh dissident, author, and poet Aron Atabek will turn 60. Atabek will mark the milestone alone, in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison in the city of Arkalyk, where he has just been transferred for the next two years.

In 2007, Atabek was convicted of organizing mass disorder against the demolition of the Shanyrak shantytown that resulted in the death of a police officer. His supporters believe the case against him was politically motivated. He was sentenced to 18 years in a labor camp. Atabek has always maintained his innocence and even rejected a government pardon if he would admit his guilt.

Supporters of Aron Atabek, including his son, Askar Aidarkhan (center), and wife, Zhainagul Aidarkhan, picket in front of the Kazakh Embassy in London in October 2012.
Supporters of Aron Atabek, including his son, Askar Aidarkhan (center), and wife, Zhainagul Aidarkhan, picket in front of the Kazakh Embassy in London in October 2012.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, conducted by telephone shortly before his transfer to Arkalyk, Atabek spoke at length about life in prison, the charges against him, and the current political situation in Kazakhstan.

Atabek, who already served two previous years in solitary confinement, from 2010 to early 2012, is now accused of insubordination against the prison regime.

"A real man must stand up for his honor and dignity if he finds himself among the ranks of the 'troublemakers' and 'offenders of the regime,'" he told RFE/RL.

Atabek described conditions in Arkalyk, saying that in the first year of his previous solitary confinement -- a "prison within a prison," as he described it -- he was not allowed a single book, only a manual on chess. In two years, he says, he received only one letter and one parcel from his family and was not allowed to make a single phone call -- a "complete vacuum," as he put it. He says he was permitted a television and a radio in his second year, on which he listened to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

Civil society activists perform repairs on Atabek's home in September 2012.
Civil society activists perform repairs on Atabek's home in September 2012.
He gives a long and grim description of prison life for people serving life sentences in isolation.

"The conditions are very harsh: 24-hour video surveillance and, when you're taken out for exercise, it's in handcuffs and a mask, so you can't see anyone. The whole system was formed under [Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin, and now it's even worse," he says.

He goes on to criticize Kazakhstan's penal system, which in 2011 was moved out from under the Justice Ministry and handed back to the control of the Interior Ministry. Since then, he says, cases of "violence and tyranny, torture, and humiliation" have been on the rise.

"It's not only the police but special interior forces who conduct prison checks," he says. "They're pure scum. For them, there are no laws, no order. They lead people out to the grounds to conduct a search, then steal the prisoners' property -- different things, like radios. They wear black masks. We call it the 'mask show.' They come to the camp and turn everything upside down."

He says he knows of at least three people who have died in prison as a result of torture.

"This is the image of a modern system," he says. "I'd call it the agony of the Nazarbaev regime. Of course, officially he's still sitting on his throne. But his throne is quite rotten. The 2011 Zhanaozen events [during which at least 16 protesters were killed in December 2011 when police and riot troops fired on them] are proof of that. And the Shanyrak events are also proof."

While treated harshly, he says he has not been beaten in prison, although he said he is aware of prisoners being severely beaten and raped with truncheons. He says he is in good health, though he has been treated for tuberculosis and eye problems from a scuffle with a fellow inmate.

Atabek's wife, Zhainagul Aidarkhan
Atabek's wife, Zhainagul Aidarkhan
He believes his transfer to solitary confinement is linked to the recent publication on the Internet of a book he wrote while in prison called "The Heart of Eurasia." (He has described the book as an essay that presents "evidence-based" criticism of the Nazarbaev regime. He says he means the book to be a political forecast for the next 10 to 20 years in Kazakhstan.) The scenario is similar, he says, to what happened in 2009, when he was sent to Arkalyk after an antigovernment book of poetry and prose titled "Nazarbaev's Regime and Revolution" was circulated on the Internet.

"This shows once again how much the regime [of President Nursultan Nazarbaev] fears the truth," he says.

Atabek's family says his health is deteriorating, and that they fear for his life after the publication of his latest book.

Here's a passage from a poem, "Re-Zona-Nce," by Atabek as translated by the website Samponsia Way:

My father was a slave of the Soviet State
in the gold mines of Kolyma
and my destiny, too, is repeating this pattern
and the brutality of Kolyma.

My father was tried in court as an Enemy of the People,
so it turns out I am a “Son of the Enemy.”
I break rocks with a pickaxe alongside him,
no different to him.

Russia is my Mother; my Father is Kazakhstan.
A childhood on the Volga, I grew up in Almaty
to kick open the doors to the Throne Room of those in power,
with a strong belief in my rights and in righteousness.

Atabek says he is very grateful for the international attention his case has received, including a prize in 2010 from Freedom to Create, an NGO dedicated to supporting projects that unleash people's creativity.

Atabek's daughter, Aidana Aidarkhan
Atabek's daughter, Aidana Aidarkhan
"That was a huge help. They would have killed me a long time ago in this prison if people didn't know who I was and didn't defend me," Atabek says. "They're afraid to torture and beat me because international organizations know about me. I'm grateful to the people and the organizations that are protecting me. I thank them with all my heart."

Atabek vowed to "fight to the end" for democracy for Kazakhstan, for an end to Nazarbaev's "rotten throne."

"Every man fights within the limits of their own understanding," he says. "And I have my way. I'll never turn my back on politics. I'll fight to the end."

-- Yerzhan Karabekov and Grant Podelco