Aron Atabek by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Aron Atabek


My father was a slave of the Soviet State
in the gold mines of Kolyma
and my destiny, too, is repeating this pattern
and the brutality of Kolyma.

My father was tried in court as an Enemy of the People,
so it turns out I am a ‘Son of the Enemy’.
I break rocks with a pickaxe alongside him,
no different to him.

This is an extract from a poem by Aron Atabek, a Kazakh writer and activist who has been in prison since 2007. Atabek’s dissident writing has caused him to be sentenced to solitary confinement for most of his time in detention. Enforced and prolonged isolation is considered by PEN and the United Nations Human Rights Committee to be cruel, inhumane and a form of torture.

Atabek, the founder of two newspapers and author of nine books mainly focusing on political and social issues, has been a vocal critic of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s authoritarian regime since the ruler first came to power 23 years ago. In 2007, Atabek was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment for organising and participating in protests against the demolition of Shanyrak, a shanty town home to around 4,000 families. The authorities announced that they wanted to clear the area in order to build luxury apartments for the Kazakh elite, and on the morning of 14 July 2006 the bulldozers rolled in. Atabek, a well-known social activist and chairman of the Land and Dwelling Committee of Shanyrak, helped to organise a blockade.

The riot police used plastic bullets and batons against the demonstrators, some of whom reacted with violence; one police officer died from burns and scores of civilians were injured. Various witnesses claim Atabek tried to prevent any bloodshed. In the days following the blockade, Atabek was one of numerous people arrested in connection with the unrest. He was convicted of organising mass disorder, along with complicity in the taking of a hostage and the murder of a police officer. There were serious concerns about the legality of his trial. After his conviction, the key prosecution witnesses confessed to lawyers that they had been threatened and abused by the police, who forced them to give false testimony.

Having denied all the charges against him, Atabek refused to wear a prison uniform. Allegedly, he also rejected an offer by the government of a pardon on condition that he confess. As punishment he spent two years in isolation and under 24-hour video surveillance. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Atabek referred to his first experience of solitary confinement as a ‘prison within a prison’. He was not allowed a single book except for a manual on chess. In two years, he received just one letter and one parcel from his family and was not allowed to make any telephone calls. ‘When you’re taken out for exercise, it’s in handcuffs and a mask, so you can’t see anyone. The whole system was formed under Stalin, and now it’s even worse,’ he said, claiming that at least three people had died in prison as a result of torture. ‘If I hadn’t continued writing then,’ he added, ‘I would probably have lost my mind.’

Now Atabek is back in solitary confinement because of his book The Heart of Eurasia, a mixture of poetry and prose written in prison, critical of Nazarbayev and his government. In 2012, the text was smuggled out of prison and published online. The authorities charged Atabek with violating prison rules and in December he was transferred to a maximum security prison in the city of Arkalyk, over a thousand miles from his family in Almaty, making it difficult for them to visit him. ‘Arkalyk is like a submarine in the vast steppes of Kazakhstan,’ he has said. He is not due for release until the end of 2014 and is denied all writing materials. Atabek suffers from heart disease and sciatica; he received an eye injury following an alleged attack by another prisoner before his transfer to solitary confinement. His family claim that he has not received adequate treatment for his injuries and ailments in prison.

The most recent report from Human Rights Watch highlights the Kazakh government’s restrictions of protest and free expression. The lobby group claims human rights violations worsened in 2012, following violent clashes in December 2011 between police and demonstrators, including striking oil workers, in western Kazakhstan. Dozens were fined or sentenced to administrative arrest in early 2012 for participating in peaceful protests. Despite these well-documented abuses, David Cameron led a thirty-strong business delegation to the country in July, hoping to secure lucrative business deals with the oil- and mineral-rich nation.

Readers might like to send appeals protesting against the prolonged detention in solitary confinement of Aron Atabek, in harsh conditions and without access to writing materials; calling for him to be transferred to a prison within reasonable travelling distance of his family; expressing concern about the alleged abuse of prosecution witnesses in his trial; and demanding Atabek’s immediate release.

Appeals to be addressed to:

President Nursultan Nazarbayev
Fax: +7 7172 559338s

HE Mr Kairat Abusseitov
The Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan
125 Pall Mall
London SW1Y 5EA

Dr Carolyn Browne
British Embassy, Kazakhstan
c/o FCO London, King Charles Street, SW1A 2AH

Readers can send messages of support to Aron Atabek in prison via (Atabek’s son has told PEN that messages of solidarity give his father great psychological support).

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