Hooded and handcuffed, sixty year old poet Aron Atabek shuffles around a dimly-lit room. The guards accompanying him prevent any communication with his fellow prisoners; the hood that they've forced him to wear ensures that he can't even see them. This is the prize-winning poet's brief, daily exercise regime.
Post-exercise, Atabek will be escorted back to solitary confinement, where he is kept under 24 hour video surveillance and where - when he can - he writes. Some days, masked men enter his cell; they ransack his belongings and confiscate whatever he has written since their last visit.
This is not some grim, dystopian fantasy. This is how Kazakhstan treats its dissident voices.
Although keen to promote itself as a modern, business-friendly state to the Western powers that court her, fossil fuel-rich Kazakhstan is a country where corruption and human rights abuses are endemic, where truly independent voices are not tolerated, and where the police massacred at least 15 striking oil workers in 2011.
Atabek is being held in one of Kazakhstan's harshest jails, in the city of Arkalyk. He has been in solitary confinement since December 2012 and will continue to stay there until the end of 2014. This is his punishment for writing The Heart of Eurasia, a blunt critique of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's autocratic regime.
Atabek wrote this mixture of poetry and prose whilst in jail on charges relating to a 2006 clash between protesters and police; it was smuggled out of prison and published on the internet in 2012.
When the authorities found out, they sent Atabek to the worst place in one of Kazakhstan's toughest jails.
The punishment is severe, even by Kazakh standards. According to Saule Mukhametrakhimova, a Kazakh journalist and the Central Asia Editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, that's because "the president really takes things personally: as soon as you start criticising Nazarbayev, you become enemy number one."
Atabek has been criticising Nazarbayev's corrupt regime throughout the president's 23 years in office, and The Heart of Eurasia, says Mukhametrakhimova, "hits all the sensitive buttons. It lists everything [that is wrong with the regime] as if building a case against Nazarbayev - how he squandered the country's resources, selling them to Western companies, and how he limits political freedoms. Atabek holds the president to account. There are very few people trying to do that, and they've been paying the price."
Atabek, has now been in jail for almost six years. He was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment in 2007, following his involvement in a 2006 protest against an attempt by Kazakh authorities to flatten a shanty town called Shanyrak; the protest ended in violent clashes and the death of a police officer.
In 2006, Shanyrak had a population of around 4,000 people and was something of a refuge for homeless families. When it was announced that the authorities wanted to clear the area in order to build luxury apartments for the Kazakh elite (thereby leaving thousands of shanty-dwellers homeless) Atabek, a well-known social activist and Chairman of the Land and Dwelling Committee of Shanyrak, helped the residents organise a blockade.
On the morning of 14 July 2006, riot police and bulldozers arrived at Shanyrak. The Police - always heavy-handed in Kazakhstan - used plastic bullets and batons to disperse the residents. Some of the protesters reacted with violence. The skirmish lasted hours, leaving scores of civilians injured; one police officer died from burns. Numerous witnesses have said that they saw Atabek trying to stop the violence.
In the days that followed, approximately 100 people were arrested in connection with the clashes; twenty-four were given prison sentences. Atabek was charged with three crimes: 1) organising mass disorder, 2) complicity in hostage-taking, and 3) complicity in the murder of a police officer. He denied all charges and declared that the true criminals were the authorities. He was found guilty and sent to jail in Karazhal.
After the conviction, and shortly before a hearing of the case at the Supreme Court, the two main witnesses for the prosecution withdrew their testimony: they said that they had been tortured and blackmailed into testifying against Atabek (see video in Kazakh language). The Supreme Court declined their new testimony as unsubstantiated, even though forcing witnesses to give false testimony is a common police tactic in Kazakhstan.
Some believe that Atabek bore the brunt of the court's ire because he was a known, long-time critic of the Kazakh government, or, in his son Askar's words, "a non-conformist fighter against totalitarianism." Mukhametrakhimova puts it simply: "The residents were not as dangerous to the authorities as Atabek, so they went for the organiser."
Prison within a Prison
At the penal colony in Karazhal, Atabek - not considering himself a criminal - refused to wear a prison uniform. "A real man must stand up for his honour and dignity," he said at the time. As punishment, he was given his first taste of solitary confinement, which lasted two years. Nine months after his return to the general prison population, he was sent back to solitary again, this time for the publication of The Heart of Eurasia.
In 2011, the Special Rapporteur on Torture reported on solitary confinement to the UN's Human Rights Council.
He noted that: "Where the physical conditions and the prison regime of solitary confinement fail to respect the inherent dignity of the human person and cause severe mental and physical pain or suffering, it amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." He recommended that states "prohibit the imposition of solitary confinement as punishment," and advised that "prolonged solitary confinement, in excess of 15 days, should be subject to an absolute prohibition."
Atabek is currently being held in conditions that amount to cruel and inhuman treatment: he has spent a third of his prison time so far in solitary confinement; he has received only two of the many letters and parcels sent to him by his family in the last two years; he has not been allowed to make telephone calls for fear he will dictate anti-Nazarbayev articles down the line; he has been denied access to writing materials and natural light.
Atabek describes his incarceration as a "prison within a prison."
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