According to the official information disseminated by the Kyrgyz State Security Committee, seven out of nine prisoners were active members of the religious extremist group called Jaish al-Mahdi and were sentenced to life imprisonment on terrorism charges. Moreover, one of the escapees, Altynbek Ytibaev who was killed during the October 22 operation, was charged with murdering Sanjar Kadyraliev, a Member of the National Parliament, in 2009. The shoot-out, which broke out between Ytibaev and security officers, resulted in the death of two innocent civilians and one police officer, according to the Interior Ministry.
The situation has sparked various debates within Kyrgyzstan’s expert and political circles. According to the Bishkek-based security expert Artur Medetbekov, “the detention facility where those escaped prisoners were held is known for being the most protected prison in the country, which poses a big question on how the terrorists managed to kill the personnel and escape.” Unofficial information that immediately spread in local media sources claimed that the captives were bribing the prison personnel in return for access to the courtyard in order to do physical exercises. They might have used one such opportunity to kill the officers and escape from the prison. In response to such speculations, the press officer of the Kyrgyz State Penitentiary System Alexander Nixdorf stated that, “they do not reflect the real picture and all the relevant state institutions will carry out a thorough investigation of the matter.” The press officer also demanded that journalists abstain from what he termed “absurd” speculations, especially during such turbulent times for the country.
In fact, three out of the five fugitives who were immediately returned to the detention facility have died in circumstances that remain unclear. The first to die in prison was Zhumanov Taalaibek, who prison doctors claimed suffered from a heart failure. Zhumanov was nearly 40 years old and according to his relatives has always been in good physical condition. “My brother never had any serious health related problems. He was always attentive about this health and ate in a proper fashion,” stated his brother Urmat during a press conference in Bishkek on October 22. Two of Zhumanov’s fellow fugitives died later the same day, also from alleged heart attack, according to prison doctors.
The immediate deaths of the captives have also been the subject of various comments and criticism. Tolekan Ismailova, a prominent human rights activist, does not exclude the possibility that the captives were subjected to inhumane treatment and died as a result. “We do know that the fugitives were charged with heavy crimes, but despite this fact we should aim at building a system, where everyone’s rights are guaranteed and everyone is given a chance to speak out,” Ismailova said. As an indirect response to this and similar statements, Kyrgyzstan’s Minister for Internal Affairs Melis Turganbaev stated that it is a worldwide practice that one does not negotiate with terrorists and removes them right at the spot. In response to the question of whether Kyrgyzstan should lift the moratorium on the death penalty, Turganbaev said, “I have repeatedly stated that we should do it already. Criminals kill innocent people, sit in the prison, escape from it and kill even more. Over the past five years only, we have lost eight outstanding officers, who died at the hands of those terrorists.”
It remains unclear what the prisoners wanted to achieve, other than to escape imprisonment. Nevertheless, the situation has revealed huge problems in the country’s penitentiary system and an urgent need to reform it.