Most prison facilities were built as gulags during Soviet times, and are totally inadequate today. Some cells built for ten inmates now hold up to 20 inmates at any one time. Prisoners say they are only allowed to use a shower once every two weeks and that they are underfed.
Prisoners also say that torture, beatings and rape are widespread and that guards engage in all sorts of gratuitous cruelty.
Voicing any complain can mean more beatings or transfer to worse facilities. To protest such conditions, some inmates have even resorted to cutting open their stomachs.
The authorities have responded to the criticism by saying that no one is protesting about the prison conditions, and that pictures of inmates with wounds are the victims of criminal gangs operating inside the prisons.
Niemeier insists however on her claim. “We have information from the prisoners themselves and we have no reason to doubt their claims,” she said.
Last year, the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, Prof Manfred Nowak, reported after visiting Kazakhstan that he had spoken to inmates and former prisoners who had told him of torture and the appalling conditions inside jails.
He also said that local authorities had tried to hide the real state of the prison, providing new beds and mattresses and having cells cleaned up.
Vadim Kuramshin, a prominent lawyer and rights campaigner who was himself jailed and then released, said that he too was tortured. In his opinion, the authorities do not care about what happens in prison.
Kazakhstan, a resource-rich former Soviet state in Central Asia, has been ruled since 1991 by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In recent months, he has tried to show his country in a better light because it currently chairs the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE).
For her part, Niemeier wants to bring the issue before national parliaments in Europe so that pressure can be brought on Kazakhstan. This should include a threat to cancel the December OCSE summit unless torture is ended.
Unfortunately, “Western states are turning a blind eye to Kazakh torture because they want the country's resources” (gas, oil and uranium), she said.