ASTANA -- Authorities in Kazakhstan are reporting success in reversing radicalisation among inmates and ex-cons, as well as among radicalised citizens who have not yet committed any offences.
In the first half of 2017, authorities and specialists rehabilitated 1,134 individuals who fell under radical influence, according to the Ministry for Religious Affairs and Civil Society.
Those results come from the hard work of rehabilitation centres that provide theological support and psychological counselling, according to the ministry.
"In the first six months of 2017, more than 5,000 events were held that involved 6,630 people overall," reads the ministry's July 28 statement.
The efforts are part of a state programme to fight extremism and terrorism that involves theologians, religious scholars, psychologists and representatives of religious associations and NGOs.
Authorities recognise the fertile environment for radicalisation inside prisons and jails, Azamat Shambilov, director of the Central Asia office of the NGO Penal Reform International, told Caravanserai.
More than 400 inmates in Kazakhstan are serving time for extremist or terrorist offences, he said.
Fighting radicalisation in prisons
One incarcerated extremist with regrets is Damir Yermukhanov.
He is serving seven years for financing terrorism in a Pavlodar Province penal colony. His sentence began in 2012, when he was 22.
Yermukhanov sent money abroad to international terrorist groups.
"I didn't immediately understand where the money was going," he told Caravanserai. "Then I realised ... but it was too late ... I hoped that I'd be forgiven for a first offence."
After discussions with theologians and psychologists, he "feels guilty before my mother, who has nobody to care for her now", he said..
Specialists regularly visit inmates convicted of extremism or terrorism, said Gulnaz Razdykova, director of the Pavlodar Province Centre for Analysis and Development of Interfaith Relations.
"Each week, in accordance with schedule, every penal colony holds group training sessions, individual consultations with psychologists, and theological lectures and conversations," she told Caravanserai.
During the first six months of 2017, specialists from the Department for Religious Affairs (part of the Ministry for Religious Affairs and Civil Society), held 3,888 meetings in prisons that involved more than 18,000 inmates, according to the ministry.
The vast majority of those inmates were common criminals rather than extremists, but authorities are taking no chances.
Because of that work, 264 inmates openly renounced radical views they had held.
Rehabilitation and preventive work
Not only convicts receive attention from concerned authorities. They keep an eye on ex-cons and on individuals who might never have joined an extremist group but fell under the spell of radical thinking.
An example of such work done on the "outside" is performed by Razdykova's centre.'
It holds courses in Arabic for men and women, to help them acquire religious literacy without the taint of extremism.
"We organised a club for mothers whose children suffered from the influence of destructive ... groups," she said. "We work one on one and in groups ... We hold athletic events."
The centre hold special events for children, she said.
"On June 1, we held an event in honour of International Day for Protection of Children," she said. "[The event] was for children whose parents belong to [radical] movements ... and who are undergoing rehabilitation in our centre."
The centre helps former radicals find jobs, nursery schools for their children, and housing, she added.
No going back
Kazakhstani authorities have done an excellent job of rehabilitating extremists, said Zhambyl theologian Daniil Lebedov.
"This is well-organised, systematic work," he told Caravanserai. "Specialists work with people at all stages. It could be someone who's been arrested after committing an extremist crime. Or it could be a typical member of a radical group who hasn't yet thought of breaking the law."
Most of the rehabilitated will never go back to radical ideology, he predicted.
The effectiveness of the rehabilitation is already noticeable, said Razdykova.
"Inmates have become less radical and categorical in their statements," she said. "Their tunnel vision is not so pronounced ... But we need to continue this work with inmates to have a sustained effect."