Head of Penal Reform International (PRI)’s office for Central Asia, Azamat Shambilov, visited the Vahdat high-security penal colony before it became the scene of a deadly riot on May 19.

According to Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service, Shambilov visited the penal colony in Vahdat Township earlier this year.

During a weekly talk show aired by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Shambilov said that one of the facility's major issues was the lack of separate cells.

Instead, prisoners were being held in large groups -- of up to 200 people -- in big barracks, Shambilov said, calling it a "legacy of the Soviet Gulag."

“Imagine a huge room with four rows of bunk beds.  Tajikistan should introduce the system of separate prison cells,” Shambilov said during the May 23 segment of The World And Us.

Shambilov said Tajik authorities had begun to gradually demolish old buildings at the Vahdat facility and were constructing new sites, including a three-story building for 200 inmates and a teahouse.

PRI was granted access to the prison owing to an agreement signed with the Tajik government in September, Shambilov explained.  It marked the first time in 15 years an organization like PRI had been granted access to the facility.

The facility is home to 1,500 prisoners and lies in Vahdat Township, fifteen kilometers east of the capital Dushanbe.

Recall, the Tajik authorities says the violence was instigated by four inmates -- alleged members of the Islamic State (IS) terror group -- who wanted to create chaos, free several of the fellow members of various militant groups from their cells, and escape.

Five inmates were reportedly stabbed to death by the rioters, while 24 inmates – alleged participants of the disturbances – were killed in the effort to quell the violence. 

The violence at the Vahdat facility was the second prison riot in Tajikistan in six months.  Dozens of people were killed in violence in a high-security penal colony in the northern city of Khujand in November last year.  Suspected IS supporters convicted of religious extremism and terrorism were reportedly behind the unrest in Khujand.

Following the November violence, Tajik authorities fired several prison officials, while several others went on trial on negligence charges.

Some 30 inmates from the Khujand prison were tried behind closed doors for their alleged participation in the November riot. 

Penal Reform International (commonly known as PRI) was founded in London in 1989.  It is an international nongovernmental organization working on penal and criminal justice reform worldwide.

PRI's stated goal is to promote safe and secure societies where offenders are held to account, victims’ rights are recognized, sentences are proportionate and the primary purpose of prison is social rehabilitation not retribution.

PRI has five offices worldwide.  PRI’s Head Office in London (UK) leads and coordinates its cross-regional programs, international policy and advocacy activities.  Its regional offices in the Middle East and North Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the South Caucasus implement practical programs and provide technical assistance at a national and regional level.  PRI also currently delivers programs through partners in East Africa and South Asia.

PRI has been working in the Central Asia region since 2001.  Its office in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, currently manages programs in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and maintains links with partners in Uzbekistan.  Current work focuses on legislative reform in Kazakhstan, torture prevention, particularly on improving independent public oversight of places of detention, and supporting the reintegration of prisoners into society.