Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

DEATH PENALTY: Central Asia Nearing Abolition

Kuban Abdymen

BISHKEK, Mar 29 2007 (IPS) - The vast region of Central Asia is moving closer to becoming death-penalty-free and hopes are high that legislation banning all executions will be adopted in all countries in the near future. But other human rights challenges remain.

“There’s a lot of expectation in the air. We’ve seen some very positive steps in the last couple of years,” Maria Luisa Bascur, regional project director based in Brussels with the International Helsinki Federation of Human Rights, told IPS. “I think in a couple of years the region will be death penalty free. And we are pressing for that.”

The resource-rich, strategically important region is comprised of five countries which gained independence after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Their combined population is around 61 million.

Kazakhstan, the size of Western Europe, has vast untapped oil reserves. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are rich in minerals and potential hydroelectric energy. Uzbekistan has big natural gas reserves and is also the world’s third largest exporter of cotton. Turkmenistan has large gas reserves.

“Only Uzbekistan is still executing people,” Bascur said, adding that Turkmenistan had already abolished the death penalty in 1999. “We estimate from our sources that Uzbekistan is executing about 100 people a year. There are no reports from there because it’s a state secret. The president (Islam Karimov) actually signed a decree in 2005 saying he would abolish the death penalty in 2008.”

But a spokesperson from Amnesty International, campaigning for a death-penalty-free zone in the region, told IPS that “secrecy remains an issue in all the countries”.

Turkmen author Sapargul Mamedova, writing in the March 2007 issue of the Internet magazine Oasis, said she had received reports that three prominent people have died in Turkmenistan prisons since the declared abolition of the death penalty there. They included journalist Ogulsapar Muradova who allegedly died after being tortured late last year.

The two others – the former head of the Turkmen security service Mukhammed Nazarov, and chairman of the Turkmen parliament, Taghandurdy Khallyev – had been accused of abuse of power. Bascur confirmed that extra-judicial killings had taken place in Turkmenistan.

Last December Kyrgyzstan took what was interpreted as a genuine lead in the region by abolishing the death penalty through a constitutional amendment that guarantees the “inherent right to life to everyone”.

Lawmakers were then expected to agree to revisions in the country’s criminal code to bring it in line with the constitutional changes – a task to be completed within six months. But this has been delayed by building pressure from the opposition – led by former prime minister Felix Kulov – for President Bakiev to step down.

There have been reports that Kyrgyz judges have been handing down death sentences despite the constitutional changes. This was due to “ignorance”, Justice Minister Marat Kayipov reportedly responded, adding that they clearly “had not read the constitution.”

Yet more constitutional changes are expected in Kyrgyzstan shortly, sources here say. Bakiev has agreed to set up a joint working group to re-write the new constitution. Human rights activists and politicians expect this will also contain a ban on executions. This was confirmed to IPS by Nurbolot Kurmanov, head of the justice department in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.

“Kyrgyzstan’s abolition of the death penalty will have repercussions for the entire region,” Bascur said. She predicted that Kazakhstan would quickly follow suit. “It might not happen right away. But the ground is fertile with civil society pushing for it. Kazakhstan is listening to its neighbours and the international community.”

Next in line for abolishing the death penalty would be Tajikistan, Bascur speculated. “They’ve already converted all death sentences to a fixed-term sentence, so in a sense they have done the main work.”

The big question for rights activists is whether Uzbekistan will honour its pledge to abolish the death penalty on Jan. 1, 2008. “Uzbekistan is the more extreme case,” Bascur agreed. “The non-governmental organisations are suffering constant persecution there. If you do work, you risk not only fines but going to prison.” No one was allowed to monitor the number of executions. Not even the relatives of the people executed were informed of the execution date or where they were buried, she said.

Experts here agree that Uzbekistan will be the last country in the region to abolish the death penalty. “There is little hope that Karimov will follow the way of Kyrgyzstan,” Nur Omarov, professor of politics at the Kyrgyz-Russian University, one of the leading universities in the country, told IPS. Karimov’s top concern was maintaining political stability and there would be no softening in his stance towards political dissent.

But there was every reason to be optimistic that change was in the air in Turkmenistan after the sudden death in December 2006 of its hard-line president Saparmurat Niyazov, said Omarov. “The Turkmen people are expecting changes,” he said. Even before the election of Qurbanquli Berdymukhamedov as president in February, some high ranking politicians sentenced to long terms in prison had been released and one state prison closed down completely, Omarov said.

“Something will happen hopefully, especially in Turkmenistan,” Bascur agreed.

Rights organisations are especially pressing for all countries in the region to introduce death penalty bans into their constitutions. “It’s important to transform moratoriums into something more concrete,” Bascur said, adding that the region had experienced considerable turmoil in the first years after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

“Moratoriums are very positive. But in countries where power rests mostly with the president, just a presidential whim could set them aside. What is needed is something more concrete: full abolition reflected in the constitution and the criminal code.”

Activists also point out that as long as a moratorium is in place, judges will continue to hand down death sentences. This means the numbers on death row in the region will continue to grow. Those on death row live under constant fear that the moratorium could be lifted and an execution order carried out.

Bascur believes that with death penalty bans in place, more attention will be focused on reforming the judiciary systems in the region. “There isn’t an independent judiciary in any of these countries,” she said. “Most of the death sentences were pronounced in faulty trials. Maybe confessions were extracted by torture and the victims were not heard.”

Reforming the penal systems is also a priority for activists. The end of death rows would mean that those convicted of serious crimes must now spend decades in prison. “They don’t get proper food there,” said Bascur. “Many die from tuberculosis and disease because there is no access to medical treatment.”

She added: “We are striving for more humane conditions in prisons and the rehabilitation of those having served their sentences. Sometimes even NGOs think the battle is won once the death penalty has been abolished. It is an important step. But the battle ahead of us is even greater.”

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