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Wednesday 22 May 2019

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The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic (file photo)

BELGRADE -- Serbian lawmakers have voted to introduce life imprisonment without parole for some serious crimes, despite concerns voiced by the Council of Europe's top human rights official.

Parliament on May 21 approved amendments to the Balkan country's Criminal Code, which resulted from a petition launched by the father of a teenage girl who was raped and killed in 2014.

The new legislation introduces life imprisonment for the killing of a senior official, acts of terrorism, war crimes, and other serious crimes.

Those sentenced to life in prison may apply for parole after having spent 27 years behind bars, except those found guilty of acts such as the rape and killing of a minor or a pregnant or disabled person.

Until now, the maximum sentence in Serbia was 40 years in prison.

The amendments were backed by the ruling coalition led by President Aleksandar Vucic's Progressive Party and part of the opposition.

The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic earlier this month called on the Serbian authorities not to submit the draft law to a vote.

Serbia is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, which does not prohibit life sentences but requires "a prospect of the prisoner's release and the possibility of a review of the sentence," Mijatovic wrote in a letter to Justice Minister Nela Kuburic.

The draft law was introduced after years of campaigning by Igor Juric, whose 15-year-old daughter Tijana was abducted and killed in 2014. Her killer is currently serving a 40-year sentence.

Juric's call for a life sentence without possibility of parole has been backed by a petition signed by about 160,000 people.

Serbia seeks to join the European Union and must align its legislation, including its Criminal Code, with those of the bloc.

Many European countries have life sentences but with the possibility of parole, including France and Germany.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Tajik authorities say that 32 people were killed in a riot that broke out in the maximum-security Kirpichniy prison near Dushanbe on May 19.

A deadly prison riot in Tajikistan has put a spotlight on the alleged role of the eldest son of the country's most-wanted man, a police colonel who defected to Islamic State (IS) four years ago.

Authorities claim that Gulmurod Halimov's 20-year-old son, Behruz Gulmurod, was among four instigators of the riot that broke out on May 19 in the high-security Kirpichniy prison in the Vahdat district, some 15 kilometers east of the capital.

The violence left 32 people dead, including three prison guards, according to the Interior Ministry. Gulmurod's name appeared on a list of the 29 inmates who were "neutralized or perished" during the riot. The ministry further claimed that 17 of the slain inmates were members of IS.

The alleged involvement of both Islamic State and the son of a prominent defector to IS cause added another element of mystery to what led to the incident, with little information available other than the official line.

Family members have confirmed that Gulmurod was buried by law enforcement officers in his native village of Foni, some 30 kilometers west of Dushanbe, on May 20.

No family members were allowed to witness the body or to take part in the burial. No customary Islamic funeral ceremony was held, and there has been no indication that an autopsy was performed.

"I wasn't even given a chance to see my son's body, to see what has happened to him," says Gulmurod's mother, Nazokat Murodova.

"I was just told by an officer that 'we brought your son's body and will bury him in the cemetery.' They briefly said he was killed in a disturbance that occurred in the prison."

Behruz Gulmurod's father, Gulmurod Halimov, is a former commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry's special forces who joined Islamic State in 2015. (file photo)
Behruz Gulmurod's father, Gulmurod Halimov, is a former commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry's special forces who joined Islamic State in 2015. (file photo)

Murodova told RFE/RL on May 21 that she "wasn't even aware that a riot had happened in the prison," where her son had been serving a 10-year sentence since 2017 for trying to join a foreign militant organization.

Gulmurod was allowed only one family visit a year, and Murodova says she last saw her son "four months ago."

The Justice Ministry says that Gulmurod and three other men, armed with knives and other "sharp objects," stabbed three prison guards to death in the evening on May 19.

The four instigators of the riot then allegedly freed several other inmates who belonged to IS, the ministry said in a statement. RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the official account.

According to the statement, the men went on to kill five prisoners, including two prominent members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), a major political opposition group. The Interior Ministry said that a total of three IRPT members were killed in the violence.

The rioters allegedly set fire to a prison medical facility and attacked other guards while trying to escape.

A list released by the Interior Ministry on May 20 claims that, aside from IS members, several of the prisoners involved belonged to the banned extremist groups Jamaat Ansarullah and the Islamic Movement of Turkestan. None of the groups had claimed involvement in the riot as of May 21.

The Interior Ministry list explicitly identified Gulmurod and his three alleged associates as IS members. The other three men, identified as Fathiddn Gulov, 25, Mahmadullo Sharifov, 20, and Ruhullo Hasanov, were not known to the public.

Surrounded By Secrecy

Gulmurod's name has frequently appeared in Tajik media since his father's defection to IS in 2015.

Gulmurod was arrested in April 2017 and charged with attempting to join a foreign militant group to fight as a mercenary.

His arrest and trial were surrounded by secrecy: his trial took place behind closed doors and for months there was no official comment about his arrest.

An official said on condition of anonymity at the time that Gulmurod had purchased a plane ticket to leave Tajikistan via Moscow to join his father in Iraq, but was arrested before his planned departure.

The official was involved in the investigation but wasn't authorized to speak to the media. He said that prior to his arrest, Gulmurod "had been in contact on social media with unidentified people who called themselves friends of his father and urged Behruz to join his father in Iraq."

Gulmurod's relatives portrayed him at the time as a family-oriented son whose life took an unexpected turn at the age of 18 after his father left.

Gulmurod abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor and worked at a market to provide for his family, his mother told RFE/RL in 2017.

Persistent Pressure

In a rare interview, Gulmurod's sister Nilufar said that the family's life "turned into a nightmare" after Halimov vacated his high-profile position as the commander of the Interior Ministry's special forces and joined IS.

Both Nilufar and her mother spoke about persistent psychological and social pressure, police questioning, and financial hardship that the family faced.

After Gulmurod's arrest two years later, Murodova and her three underage children were left dependent on the small income she makes selling goods at a makeshift stall alongside a highway near their village.

Her husband has four other children with his longtime partner Humairo Mirova, a former state customs service employee.

Mirova and her children reportedly joined Halimov in Syria in February 2016.

Two of Halimov's brothers and two nephews were killed in July 2017 in what officials described as a police operation to prevent them from fleeing to Afghanistan to join IS.

In the same operation in southern Tajikistan, two other Halimov brothers and a nephew were arrested, law enforcement officials said.

The three men were sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven to 18 years in October 2017, according to officials .

The trials took place behind closed doors and officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief media.

The bodies of the two brothers and two nephews who were allegedly killed in the operation were taken to their home village by law enforcement officers and buried with no traditional funeral ceremony. No relatives were allowed to attend.

The fugitive colonel's other brother, Saidmurod Halimov, resigned from his post at the department overseeing the country's prison system in December 2017.

The fate and whereabouts of Gulmurod Halimov remains unknown. Iraqi media reported that he had become the militant group's "minister of war."

In August 2016, the U.S. State Department offered a reward of $3 million for information regarding his whereabouts.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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