According to experts, new approaches are needed for deradicalisation of such prisoners, but we have neither money nor specialists for that.
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After release from the maximum security penal colony next year, 28-year-old Azamat (not his real name) is dreaming of getting married and make leather souvenirs. He mastered the new trade for three and a half years in the penal colony No. 27 in the village of Moldovanovka, Chui region.
In 2014, as soon as he was in the militant training camp in Syria, he received a gunshot wound. He was arrested at one of the hospitals in Turkey. After 10 months spent in a local prison, he was extradited to Kyrgyzstan. So, the resident of Vorontsovka village near Bishkek never had an opportunity to take part in battle actions.
In Kyrgyzstan, he was convicted of “Mercenarism” for 5 years in prison.
“I happened to be in Syria due to my lack of religious knowledge. I was working on the building site with a guy who convinced me to fight to my faith as a Muslim with deadly force. He bought me an airline ticket to Turkey and gave me 300 dollars,” Azamat said.
An imam of one of Bishkek mosques he knew learned he was in Syria and explained him what Islam was for and what jihad was and brought him books to read.
“There are three of us in the cell, we’ve been here for six months. We are trying to avoid religious topics as all of us have different views. If we happen to talk about religion, we cannot avoid a conflict. One day I considered myself to belong to ISIS (extremist and terrorist organisation banned in the Kyrgyz Republic and other CA states – editor’s note). Thanks to the imam, I figured it out,” Azamat said.
Reverse the radicalisation process
According to GSIN, the number of prisoners charged with extremist and terrorist crimes has tripled in the last five years. Now, there are about 600 such inmates in Kyrgyzstan. More than a half of them are sentenced for life.
Since 2003, theologians and employees of the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (DUMK) regularly – once or twice a month – visit prisons as agreed with the State Service for the Execution of Sentences (GSIN), Ministry of Interior Affairs (MID), and State National Security Committee (GKNB). These visits comprise lectures about Islam and its peaceful ideas for inmates.
“We used to meet extremists before, when they were all together, but we don’t see them now in the colony No. 27 and in Belovodskoe for two years as the administration doesn’t allow us. They are placed in separate buildings,” Estebes Azhykulov, representative of DUMK, who visits prisons, said.
He has been teaching at the Islamic University for 17 years and has been visiting prisons for the same period. He said it was difficult at first to establish contacts with inmates, but in a year or two they asked him to visit.
“Only one or two people of a hundred refuse strongly to change their religious views. I know many people who were released from prisons and started new lives. And neither of them became an extremist again,” Azhykulov said.
Experts have different information in this regard. According to theologian Kadyr Malikov, ex-inmates have high chances to become extremists again if they are socially isolated and no systemic work is done to reintegrate them back into society.
“Rehabilitation of such inmates should not stop at facilities. It’s very important to support them after release. Otherwise, after the rehabilitation programme in prison, they will be released, won’t be able to find a place in the society and will again join his fellow-thinkers. For example, in neighbouring Kazakhstan, only 20 per cent of the total number rejects their former views after talks with a theologian,” Malikov said.
According to the theologian, visits to prisons almost don’t have any influence on the deradicalisation of this special group. Inmates convicted of religious extremism see representatives of the ruling political force in muftiate officers and distrust them. Members of terrorist groups take them as betrayers of faith and are reluctant to meet them.
See also: Kyrgyz Prisons Tackle Extremism
Bilal azhy Saipiev is the head of the group of 18 imams, who this year are delegated from DUMK to visit prisons. He said every meeting with inmates is somehow useful because water can break down rocks.
“There is no coercion in religion. We have a law on the religious freedom, and only God knows who believes in what. It’s very difficult and a delicate thing to change religion. We only speak, and no one knows whether they share our opinion or not. We cannot coerce them, we only try to throw discredit on their previous beliefs and to launch their own thinking process,” Bilal azhy Saipiev said.
Theologian Indira Aslanova also noted that the same approach is applied to all inmates despite their visible differences. According to her, we cannot mix extremists and terrorists in one group. The former adhere to the idea of caliphate, change of social life based on religious postulates, and don’t use violent methods to achieve that.
“But terrorists in their thinking allow violence to achieve their goals. They divide people into those who have a right to live, and those who don’t. This is quite a different ideology. They call the members of extremist groups philosophers and chatterboxes and don’t take them seriously. We need to classify and categorise them. For example, Hizb ut-Tahrir (extremist organisation banned in the Kyrgyz Republic – editor’s note) and Yakin Inkar (extremist organisation banned in the Kyrgyz Republic – editor’s note) differ strongly between each other, although they are both regarded as extremists,” Aslanova said.
Isolated for reasons of safety
The inmates charged with the above articles can have up to five long-term in-person visits for up to three days and 10 short-terms visits up to four hours, and also eight phone calls 15 minutes each. The inmates may take a two-hour walk in the so-called prison yard that is hardly bigger than their cell. This limited number of contacts with the outside world is allowed to prisoners charged with religious extremism and terrorism.
They are placed in special cell blocks, separately from other inmates. The decision of total isolated was made after a heinous escape and murder of four guards in pre-trial detention facility No. 50 in 2015 by nine convicted of religious extremism and terrorism. Now such inmates are placed only in four facilities in Chui region.
30-year-old resident of Dzhalal-Abad Artur (not his real name) was convicted of sponsorship of militants of the extremist and terrorist organisation ISIS (banned in the Kyrgyz Republic – editor’s note) at the end of 2015. According to him, he sent money to his younger brother who was studying in Egypt. After his arrest, he learned that his family member went to fight to Syria.
“They arrested me at the Osh airport when I came back home from Turkey, where I was working for a few months. They said I was a militant but I had evidence that I was working and didn’t go to Syria. They could not prove it but still charged me with helping the terrorists. How could I know that my younger brother would pick up such ideas? I was just helping him to get education. And I was convicted of aiding terrorism and sentenced to 10 years in prison,” Artur said.
According to GSIN officers, they were isolated for reasons of own safety, not only of the risk of dissemination of extremism ideas. According to them, the criminal world doesn’t like such people.
Number of inmates is increasing
To increase the level of knowledge in religious issues, two full-time theologians have appeared on the staff since the beginning of this year. Experts have long recommended that the agency should complete staff with such specialists in order to understand well the language spoken by those convicted of extremism and terrorism and not to get radical themselves. Their tasks include development of a methodology of work with such prisoners, which is not yet in place.
Direct work with inmates should be conducted by invited experts outside the system, otherwise they will automatically become their enemies, Aslanova noted.
“We need well-trained theologians. In addition to knowledge of religious issues (this is a very large field), a specialist should understand well and know the history and ideology of extremist groups – how they emerged, from whom and why. They must understand the psychology of the inmates, how to communicate with them, know security issues, after all, it’s a closed facility,” the theologian said.
Both she and theologian Kadyr Malikov said that there are no such experts in Kyrgyzstan so far. It’s also unclear how to train them and who will be responsible for it.
The list of banned radical groups in Kyrgyzstan contains about 20 organisations. However, there is still no responsible body coordinating the work of law enforcement agencies, government agencies and public organisations in this direction. Experts recommend DUMK to use their potential more actively at almost all levels, starting with mosques in every region of the country.
“That would be good. A local police officer warns the imam and the imam is already waiting for this man. He can work with him and support him, without displaying his activity. But are the imams ready for this? They must have higher education, understand secular issues, know the psychology of communication and, of course, have a good salary. But now they have no salary! They are paid some money collected from the Hajj and not on a regular basis. Who will work on such conditions?” Kadyr Malikov wondered.
Imam Bilal azhy Saipiev said religious figures were ready to join this work and work closer with agencies, but the latter show no interest in this so far.
Experts noted that the problem of the inadequacy of punishment is still unsolved for those who unknowingly “liked” or shared a post on social media, took a book to read, or, without suspecting anything, lent money to someone who later suddenly went to a combat zone. In fact, deradicalisation efforts will almost certainly need to be applied to them, although many of them were not even at risk before conviction.
This spring, the Ombudsman’s Office introduced a draft law for public discussion, which contains a number of amendments to the Criminal Code and the Code of Offences. In particular, such offences committed without intent are suggested for decriminalisation, and they will be turned into administrative offenses that will be fined. They suggest that in case of repeated offence, they should be criminalised.
The draft law is planned for submission to the Parliament during the annual report of the Ombudsman. The exact date is yet unknown, but according to law, he must submit it before April 1, 2020.
This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»