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Kazakhstan’s Living Gulags

‘Assignment’ programme reveals horrors of prison life (and death!)

Elizabeth Clarke

Over the past couple of weeks, a programme called ‘Assignment – Kazakhstan’s Living Gulags’ has been aired on the BBC’s World Service and its Radio 4. It paints a harrowing picture of the torture, rape, maiming, and killing that goes on in Kazakhstan’s prisons and ‘penal colonies’.

In sometimes graphic detail, it confirms the material we have carried previously on this site, especially that of Vadim Kuramshin, a human rights lawyer who has spoken out courageously against such atrocities. Like lawyers mentioned in this broadcast, Vadim himself has been put behind bars. At present he languishes in a penal colony, sentenced to twelve years on trumped up charges, even after the case against him was dismissed unanimously by a jury.

This site has also carried material about the campaigner and writer, Aron Atabek, sentenced to 18 years in prison for fighting against the destruction of people’s shanty town homes at Shanyrak, on the edges of Almaty. He has been held in solitary confinement for unbearably long periods of time, often without pen and paper. In poems of his which have been translated into English, he likens his experience to that of his father held in one of the most notorious camps under Stalin and in the same area.

The BBC’s Central Asia Correspondent, Rayhan Demytrie, is in Karaganda – “the industrial heartland of Kazakhstan and centre of a vast network of Soviet forced labour camps”. She visits a museum on the site of Karlag (Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp) – the biggest of Stalin’s concentration camps – which ‘processed’ no less than 800,000 inmates. There she sees a gruesome list of the 31 forms of torture used to crush the will and break the bones of all opposition. On average, one quarter of those who went into the Gulags did not come out alive.

Karlag torture museum

Karlag torture museum

Today’s torture houses

Just one mile away from the museum is one of ‘modern’ Kazakhstan’s notorious torture houses – prison AK 159/7. Prison rights campaigner, Ruslan Azdoeyev, gets Rayhan to listen to an eerie sound as they approach it. Prisoners behind the walls are being forced to march and sing patriotic songs – an ‘exercise’ they can be forced to do for hours on end. This, Ruslan explains, is commonplace but totally illegal. As with all the numerous forms of abuse in Kazakhstan prisons, up to and including murder, no-one gets prosecuted or punished.

“History is repeating itself!”, says one woman whose son was beaten so badly in prison that he can barely walk. He dare not tell his mother all the details of his treatment for fear of further ‘punishment’. In spite of the intimidation, the UN’s special rapporteur, Evgeny Jofftis, says there have been 200 official reports of torture this year alone. These places are meant for rehabilitating people, not condemning them to a living or a real death, as one woman comments.

A government official, interviewed by the BBC correspondent, boasts that spending on prisons has recently doubled! There has been progress! Forums have been held with visitors from Germany, Italy and Norway to discuss human rights, an prisons Ombudsman has been appointed and, “instead of the third most incarcerated country in the world”, he claims, it is now at number 36!

At the end of the half hour long programme, Rayhan comments that the regime in Kazakhstan “spends millions on foreign PR and appears obsessed with hosting international conferences and dignatories”.  On its site, the BBC writes that, “Despite its poor human rights record, many developed nations, including Britain, are rapidly strengthening relations with oil rich Kazakhstan”. In its trailers for the programme, the BBC asked why the horrors of Kazakhstan’s prisons are not known about abroad.

Campaign Kazakhstan has been at pains to explain what lies behind this silence. It is precisely Kazakhstan’s vast oil and other natural resources. ‘Western’ companies make vast profits out of exploiting them and the cheap labour of Kazakhstan’s brutally oppressed workers. In addition they are involved in lucrative deals for supplying arms to keep the population in subjection. Programmes like this one on Kazakhstan remain exceptional.

The task of Campaign Kazakhstan is to reveal far more of the gory details of life under the Nazarbayev dictatorship and to build solidarity with those who risk imprisonment, and worse, for fighting to bring it to an end.

If you want to help in our activities, contact

To support these political prisoners and to let the authorities know you do, please write to:-

Vadim Kuramshin at: Uch. EC 164/4, Poselok Gornii, Yesilskii raion, 150506

Aron Atabek at: Uch. UK 161/12, Posyolok Severnyi, Arqalyq, Kostanayskaya Oblast, Kazakhstan 110300,

Rosa Tuletayova at: Uch. UK 157/11, Ulitsa Satibaldina 47, Аtirau 060000

Vladimir Kozlov at: Uch. ЕС 164/3, Ulitsa Pervaya Zarechnaya, 100, Petropavlovsk, Severnaya Oblast, Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan 150000


The Assignment programme (in English) can be downloaded from