Torture allegations in Kazakhstan concern UN rights expert

Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

13 May 2009 – While lauding the efforts made by authorities in Kazakhstan to improve conditions in prisons and other facilities, an independent United Nations expert today expressed his concerns about allegations of torture in the Central Asian nation.

“I conclude that the use of torture and ill-treatment certainly goes beyond isolated instances,” Manfred Nowak said in a statement issued today in Astana, following a nine-day visit to the country.

Mr. Nowak, the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment, said he received many “credible allegations” of beatings with hands and fists, plastic bottles filled with sand and police truncheons.

He was also told of kicking, asphyxiation through plastic bags and gas masks used to obtain confessions from suspects. “In several cases, these allegations were supported by forensic medical evidence.”

The Special Rapporteur added that there are some groups that run larger risks of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment than others, noting that the likeliness for foreigners to be subjected to such treatment seems to be “higher than average.”

Another concern is the “almost total absence” of official complaints, which raises doubt about whether there is in fact a meaningful complaint mechanism. “It appears that most detainees refrain from filing complaints because they do not trust the system or are afraid of reprisals,” noted Mr. Nowak.

On prisons, the expert said the country has made considerable efforts in recent years to improve the conditions in its prisons, including bringing physical conditions and food supply in line with minimum international standards.

At the same time, he noted that one of the key-requirements of international human rights law is that penitentiary systems put the rehabilitation and reintegration rather than the punishment of the individual offender at their core.

“This has clearly not been achieved: the current law still provides for different prison regimes as a form of punishment and places heavy restrictions on contact with the outside world; exacerbated by the fact that the locations of the facilities per se make family visits difficult,” he stated.

Furthermore, only a very small percentage of the prison population appears to have access to meaningful activities, and the hierarchy among prisoners appears to lead to discriminatory practices and, in some cases, violence, Mr. Nowak said, adding that the same is true for pre-trial detention and custody facilities.

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