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Prisoners sew their own lips shut in Kyrgyzstan

Hundreds have used wire or coarse twine to sew their lips together, in what they say is a protest at poor living conditions.

Inmates gather to pray at a detention centre in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Inmates gather to pray at a detention centre in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Image: Dalton Bennett/AP/Press Association Images

MORE THAN 1,000 prisoners in Kyrgyzstan have sewn their lips together in a grotesque act which they said was a protest against their dismal living conditions.

However, authorities blamed the mass action on organised criminal gangs who resent attempts to break the power they wield in prisons.

Kyrgyzstan, a poor ex-Soviet nation of 5.3 million, holds around 7,600 inmates in its detention centers. The buildings are notoriously crowded and disease-ridden, and they have not escaped the reach of powerful criminal syndicates who also threaten the stability of the country, which hosts a key US air base.

Over the years, prisoners have staged numerous protests – until yesterday, the vast majority of the prisoners were on a 10-day-long hunger strike. But the sewing of lips has been one of the most unusual and brazen ways to bring attention to the prisoners’ plight.

An Associated Press reporter who was allowed to visit a pre-trial detention facility recently saw several prisoners with their lips stitched together, leaving enough space to take in liquids, but not enough to eat food. Some prisoners used strands of coarse fibre or pieces of wire.

A 22-year-old, who gave his name only as Yevgeny, said awkwardly through his constricted lips that he was “suffering for justice.”

But the facility’s director, Mars Zhusupbekov, countered that the protest was a reaction to his own attempts to bring justice.

Zhusupbekov said he was appointed head of the facility in the capital Bishkek last month and soon learned that a group of 23 inmates was allowed to roam the prison freely, extorting money from others.

‘This is not a hotel’

“Intimidated prisoners would call their relatives and ask them to sell their apartment or car, and then transfer the money to the gang in jail,” he said.

So Zhusupbekov said he decided to launch raids on cells in mid-January to stamp out the thugs. About a week later, inmates started to sew their lips together, an act he said was forced on frightened prisoners by the criminal gang in his facility.

Crime experts say prison gangs in former Soviet nations are typically part of a complex hierarchical fraternity that extends across the penitentiary system and is ultimately subservient to criminal leaders beyond jail walls.

Almost 400 prisoners bound their lips at Zhusupbekov’s jail, and as many as 800 others are believed to have done the same in other jails in what they say is an act of solidarity. Authorities say it is only the influence of organised crime that could have enabled protests on such a large scale.

Zhusupbekov was sanguine about the lip-sewing, describing it as a similar procedure to piercing, and dismissed complaints about poor prison conditions. “This is not a hotel, this is not a holiday resort, they should serve their time,” he said.

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Associated Press

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