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'They Would Hang Me By The Arms': Hundreds Of Letters From Kazakh Prisons Describe Alleged Torture

Inmates say victims who try to complain about torture in Kazakh prison face even harsher treatment at the hands of authorities. (illustrations by Shapalaque)
Inmates say victims who try to complain about torture in Kazakh prison face even harsher treatment at the hands of authorities. (illustrations by Shapalaque)

Inmates at prisons in Kazakhstan are sharing harrowing details of what they describe as “torture” at the hands of their jailers.

“An officer pulled me out of the cell and began strangling me as others looked on. Then he hit me repeatedly on the head and in my face,” said one inmate of a prison in Almaty, whose name is being withheld out of concern for his safety.

“Next, five officers handcuffed me and dragged me into a specially adapted torture chamber to drown me in a water container,” he said. “I was tortured there until I passed out.’’

Many other detainees and prisoners in Kazakhstan say torture and other mistreatment is commonplace in Kazakhstan’s penitentiaries.

They claim that jailers act with impunity inside Kazakh prisons and that inmates who complain face more torture and mistreatment.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service has obtained copies of letters from prisoners and detainees who have complained to Kazakh human rights defender Yelena Semyonova and two Kazakh rights groups -- the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and the Coalition Against Torture in Kazakhstan.

The rights activists say they receive hundreds of similar letters every year.

The letters suggest that systemic torture is often used to obtain confessions or to threaten detainees against filing formal complaints about mistreatment.

One inmate said he was brutally beaten by prison guards because he refused to hand over his prison salary to “cover someone else’s debts.”
Another letter claims prisoners were mistreated when “they refused to get a vaccination.” The letter doesn’t specify if the author was referring to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Another man described the ill-treatment he says he suffered at a police station in Atyrau Province.

“They shouted at me, kicked me, and beat me to force me to confess that I had stolen 12 bicycles,” the man wrote. “I told them I won’t take responsibility for a crime I didn’t commit.

“They beat me again in all places, then they handcuffed me and began strangling me with cellophane tape,” he wrote.

The man said he suffered such intense pain that he “swallowed a spoon" to "protect” himself and make them stop beating him. He was taken to a hospital, where he told the doctors about the beatings.

Later, during his trial, the man told the judge that he had been tortured into making a false confession. The judge disregarded his statement and found him guilty of stealing bicycles.

Semyonova, a longtime campaigner for the elimination of torture in Kazakh prisons, says it’s “almost impossible” for victims to prove they’ve been mistreated.

Semyonova says Kazakh authorities routinely fail to conduct adequate and impartial investigations into allegations of torture.

“Those who carry out probes usually speak to the same employees who are being accused of the mistreatment,” Semyonova told RFE/RL. “They also speak to a group of prisoners who are on good terms with prison officials. Ultimately, court rulings are based on these testimonies.”

Authorities say “99 percent of complaints by convicts and their relatives” about mistreatment at the hands of prison workers last year were not proven.

Complaints, Protests Ignored

One prisoner from the northern province of Qostanai wrote that he was repeatedly beaten by prison guards for no apparent reason. The man said his protests, complaints, and even a hunger strike that he staged were ignored by prison officials.

After [being tortured], I wrote on my body that the prison employees are responsible for my death,” one inmate said.

“When I was taken out for a walk, a guard started banging my head against the wall for no reason and then threw me into the cell,” he wrote. “I fell and hit my head. I asked to call the prosecutor, but they didn’t call anyone.”

The man said that when he cut his own hand in protest, “no medical treatment was provided” for him.

“Then I sewed my mouth shut and refused to eat for five days. But no one came to me,” he said. “I wrote complaints, but [prisons workers] wouldn’t send the letters anywhere.”

Like many others in similar cases, the man said that he would write messages on his body that he was being tortured in the hope that if he died from mistreatment, someone would find out about it.

“After [being tortured], I wrote on my body that the prison employees are responsible for my death,” the inmate said in his letter.

Another prisoner in Qaraghandy Province wrote that he would inflict harm on himself as a way to cry out for help amid unbearable torture.

“They would tie my hands behind my back and drag me out when the temperature was minus 20 degrees Celsius. They would hang me by the arms, douse my body with cold water, or cover me with snow, drown me, beat me unconscious.”

Many detainees and prisoners say that their defense attorneys advised them not to complain about being mistreated because it would inevitably lead to even more brutal torture.

One prisoner from the Aqmola region in central Kazakhstan said that law enforcement employees acted as if they thought their actions would never be punished.

“They behave like they’re above the law -- that I can’t prove their guilt because they have money and connections, while I’m just a convict who can be tortured. Where can I find justice?” the man wrote.

Out of 120 allegations of torture in prison facilities registered in Kazakhstan during the first five months of 2021, none of the cases has been sent to court.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondents Ayan Kalmurat and Aya Renaud
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    Ayan Kalmurat

    Ayan Kalmurat is an Almaty-based correspondent with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. A graduate of Almaty's Turan University, he has many years of experience as a correspondent in different media outlets. Since joining RFE/RL in 2017, Kalmurat has been working as a reporter, television host, and investigative journalist covering a wide variety of topics.

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    Aya Renaud

    Aya Renaud is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

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