By Asker Sultanov
A picture taken through an inspection hole shows a prisoner praying inside his cell in Bishkek in January 2012. According to the State Penitentiary Service of Kyrgyzstan, 185 individuals are serving prison terms across the country for crimes related to terrorism and extremism. [Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP]
BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan is implementing a United Nations programme aimed at preventing religious extremism in its penitentiary system, Kyrgyz and UN officials told Caravanserai.
The UN has been working to help prevent radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan since 2016 and has recently developed a programme to prevent religious extremism in prisons, according to Ashita Mittal, the Central Asia regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"Preventing radicalism in the penitentiary system is a very important facet of preventing religious extremism and terrorism," she told Caravanserai. "In 2017, the UNODC devised two handbooks and a special programme to prevent religious extremism in prisons."
The goal of the programme is to "re-educate" prisoners so that they can become citizens free of "extremist and terrorist orientation", Taalaibek Japarov, chairperson of the State Penitentiary Service of Kyrgyzstan (GSIN), told Caravanserai.
According to Japarov, 185 individuals convicted of terrorism- and extremism-related crimes are serving prison terms across Kyrgyzstan.
The UN programme involves an in-depth study of the prisoner's personality and begins from when they enter prison. Work continues with that individual until they are rehabilitated and able to re-enter society, according to Mittal.
Those who enter the penitentiary system are still citizens and retain their rights, said Alexander Fedulov, head of the UNODC Programme Office in Kyrgyzstan.
The key role for the state is prevention, not repression, Fedulov told Caravanserai.
"We understand that an individual who was convicted of extremism... for disseminating literature, but didn't become involved in violent acts, could reconsider his situation," he said. "And in that sense we want to help the penitentiary system solve this problem."
The UNODC teaches prison officials to be heedful of such prisoners and how to interact with them, Fedulov said. "To that end, we published guidebooks for prison officials that teach them how to work with this category of convicts."
According to Erbol Kuvashev, head of the department supervising anti-extremism and terrorism law at Kazakhstan's General Prosecutor's Office, the common profile of an extremist is someone from a rural area with a high-school education and no regular source of income.
When these high-risk prisoners are jailed, they often become anxious and depressed, which pushes them towards religion, making them easily exploitable by extremists in prison, he said.
After theology experts and prison psychologists work with the prisoners, "they start doubting the truthfulness of extremist ideas and turn away from them", Kuvashev said, adding, "It takes from several months to a year and a half to bring religious extremists around."
When the prisoners are released, specialists continue to help them adjust socially, he said.
Bishkek hosted a regional conference September 14-15 on the prevention of radicalisation in prisons. The event was jointly organised by the GSIN and UNODC with financial support from the Japanese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.
During the conference, delegates from the national security services, general prosecutor's offices, interior ministries, penal services, and Central Asian civil society discussed methods of working with prisoners convicted of crimes related to religious extremism and terrorism.
Experts also shared their experience working to rehabilitate this segment of prisoners.
"This sort of work with imprisoned extremists is a global challenge for all Central Asian countries," Mittal said. "It is pre-eminently important for all of us, both international organisations and leaders of the country, to work as a community against radicalisation and terrorism, not just in the penitentiary system, but also in everyday life."
Working to prevent young people from entering radical movements is both the state's and society's responsibility, she said.
"We should provide youth a clear understanding of what radicalism is so that they don't fall into it," she said.
Presidents of Central Asian countries overall called 2017 a year of changes and said they foresee further innovations in 2018.
What is the biggest threat to peace and security in your country for 2018?