PRI has been working in the Central Asia region since 2001. It currently manages programmes in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and maintains contact with partners in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. PRI's regional office is in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have faced common problems of security and institutional and economic weaknesses. The collapse of the Soviet Union has created a legacy of poverty and widespread unemployment in the region. Criminal activities in the form of illegal trading in drugs, arms and people have increased significantly.
In spite of some moves towards democratic governance within the region, post-independence governments have been largely authoritarian in nature, a stance that has been strengthened by the events of September 11th and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Human rights commitments are increasingly being abandoned in the interests of national security. In some countries, limits on the activities of civil society organizations and the media have been justified on these grounds.
Criminal Justice in Central Asia
In Kazakhstan, the Committee of the Criminal Executive System has been part of the Ministry of Justice since 2002. Currently it is responsible for the management of 93 penitentiary institutions, which include 73 correctional colonies (including three colonies for women and three colonies for juveniles) and 20 pre-trial detention centres. Kazakhstan has a total prison population of 59,000, which includes over 8,000 pre-trial detainees.
In Kyrgyzstan, there are 17 prisons holding a prison population of 7,000 prisoners. The prison system is managed by the Central Department of Execution of Punishments, part of the Ministry of Justice. The application of non-custodial sanctions since June 2007 falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior.
The Department of Correctional Works is responsible for managing the prison system in Tajikistan and has been part of the Ministry of Justice since 2002. Its 19 penitentiary institutions include 13 correctional colonies (including one colony for women and one colony for juveniles), one prison and five pre-trial detention centres. The prison system in Tajikistan is holding about 7,000 inmates. There are also five regional units responsible for the execution of non-custodial sanctions.
Penal reform challenges in the region
In spite of positive developments in recent years, criminal justice policy in the region remains punitive. Large prison populations, attributed to the over-use of pre-trial detention and custodial sanctions, have created problems of overcrowding and poor conditions of pre-trial detention. The absence of separate juvenile justice systems, poor measures to support the reintegration of offenders back into the community and the detention of political prisoners remain persistent problems. Violence in prison, and self-mutilation by prisoners in particular, poses key challenges to prison authorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The abolition of the death penalty is the subject of ongoing debate within the region. Turkmenistan abolished the death sentence in 1999, Kyrgyzstan in 2007 and Uzbekistan in 2008. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan introduced a moratorium on executions in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
The Soviet era has left a legacy of secrecy and paranoia that pervades the criminal justice system. Government officials and prison administrators are highly resistant to public monitoring and publishing information about prison systems. The lack of transparency and openness undermines public accountability and reform efforts.
How PRI is addressing these challenges
PRI’s Central Asia programme is focused on reducing the prison population, improving prison management through the promotion of human rights standards, increasing the transparency of criminal justice systems, improving prisoners’ health and abolishing the death penalty.
Programme activities centre on building the capacity of local NGOs to contribute to penal reform efforts and supporting and promoting good practice. PRI also works directly with government departments and prison administrations to assist in legislating and implementing criminal justice reforms.
In Kazakhstan, PRI has helped develop a network of public monitoring boards to act as an oversight mechanism for places of detention. We have also supported legislative changes to enable public monitoring to take place. Following consultation by the Ministry of the Interior, PRI has pressed for access to police cells by monitoring boards.
PRI has undertaken research into alternatives to the death penalty, looking in particular at good practice and recommendations relating to life imprisonment and long-term custodial sentences. The research has also highlighted the legislative and operational changes required to support these reforms.
Further information about PRI's work in Central Asia