Protest prisoners sew lips together
More than 1,000 prisoners in Kyrgyzstan have sewn their lips together, a grotesque act inmates describe as a protest of their dismal conditions, but which authorities blame 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 centres.
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 Saturday, 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.
A 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.
Mr 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. "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 Mr 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.