The National Preventive Mechanism against Torture and Ill Treatment: Stepping up to the plate of protecting those in closed institutions

December 10, 2021

Photo credit: UNDP Kazakhstan

The problem of torture, ill treatment, and other violations of citizens' rights in closed institutions traditionally remains one of the key issues of concern to both human rights defenders and law enforcement agencies.

In 2021, in Kazakhstan, the Human Rights Commissioner received over 1,600 applications. A total of 163 related to human rights violations in correctional institutions, including complaints about medical care, abuse of office, violation of communal conditions, and the use of torture. AAccording to the updated data, for 11 months of this year under Article 146 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan ("Torture"), 665 pending criminal cases were registered as a torture, 75 percent of which were closed due to lack of evidence.

National Preventive Mechanism against Torture and Ill Treatment (NPM) in Kazakhstan

For seven years, the National Preventive Mechanism against Torture and Ill Treatment (NPM) has been operating in Kazakhstan, aimed at identifying cases of human rights violations in closed institutions. NPM activities are coordinated by the Human Rights Commissioner and carried out with the support of the Government, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and other international organizations. Members of the NPM include members of public associations, selected from among Kazakhstani citizens, who carry out activities to protect the rights of citizens, as well as lawyers, social workers and doctors.

The task of the experts involved in the work of the NPM is regular, sudden for the administrations of institutions and confidential visits to places where people are isolated from society to monitor the observance of the rights and freedoms of those confined.

Every year, NPM members conduct about 500 monitoring visits to more than 3,000 mandated institutions throughout the country. Such institutions, in addition to prisons, include pre-trial detention centres, police stations, drug treatment clinics, health-care organizations for orphans, centres for the provision of special social services for the elderly, persons with disabilities, among others.

In 2019-2020, NPM members carried out 1,012 monitoring visits,  when they identified and accepted appeals from convicted persons to the Human Rights Commissioner. Such appeals from prisoners signal existing violations of the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which Kazakhstan is a state party.

Strengthening control during the pandemic

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, many states have imposed restrictions on visiting people in closed institutions, which has created additional risks of abuse. In Kazakhstan, NPM participants did not suspend their work and carried it out online, using video calls. The number of preventive visits in 2020 increased to 517, which exceeds the indicators of 2019 by 22 visits. As of November 2021, NPM participants have already conducted 507 visits to closed institutions.

Recommendations for notified bodies

In 2021, following the results of preventive visits, the NPM participants sent over 3,500 recommendations to state bodies regarding the conditions of detention (residence) of persons, medical care, food, education, provision of the necessary clothing allowance, and leisure.

However, not all recommendations receive the support of authorized government bodies. For example, out of 758 recommendations, the Committee of the Penitentiary System has implemented 275 recommendations, 456 recommendations are at the stage of implementation, and 27 recommendations were not accepted by this department.

UNDP activities in NPM area in Kazakhstan

The topic of the rule of law and protection of human rights has been one of the main areas of UNDP project activities in Kazakhstan since it began working in the country. The issues of harmonizing national legislation with international human rights standards, implementing the recommendations of the UN treaty bodies, supporting the National Preventive Mechanism (against torture, combating gender-based violence are the focus of joint UNDP projects with its government partners.

As one of the initiators, together with other international organizations, of the implementation of the NPM in Kazakhstan, UNDP provides support to institutional strengthening of the NPM and reinforcing the capacity of its participants. Together with national and international experts, UNDP developed recommendations on amending the legislation governing NPM activities, prepared training materials on the specifics of monitoring visits for new NPM participants, developed a digital platform, and piloted it for registering, analysing and storing the results of monitoring visits.

In the legislative sphere, particularly , the government adopted the recommendations of UNDP experts, Penal Reform International and the human rights community of Kazakhstan regarding the need to transfer the medical services of the penitentiary system to the Ministry of Health, which will improve prisoners' access to quality medical services and necessary medicines. Proposals are under consideration to further implement the Nelson Mandela Rules or the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners that ensure their human dignity.

These and other results of the work of international and national UNDP experts, together with government partners, contribute to the further advancement of the issue of human rights observance in Kazakhstan and the implementation of the UN treaty bodies’ recommendations.

Every year the world community celebrates International Human Rights Day. This year it focuses on the theme of “Equality”, which is aligned with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and with the United Nations’ goal to “leave no one behind”. The issue of abuse of people in custodial institutions is a key link in the protection of human rights and should be included in the national priorities of the country.