Prague, 20 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Last month, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered a moratorium on the death penalty, pending a decision on the complete abolishment of capital punishment.
Nazarbayev issued a decree on 12 January introducing life imprisonment as an alternative to the death sentence. While those convicted of capital crimes may still be sentenced to death, executions will not be carried out.
Ramazan Sarpekov is a member of the lower house of the Kazakh Parliament, the Mazhlis. He told RFE/RL, "The introduction of the moratorium does not mean that courts in the Republic of Kazakhstan will immediately stop pronouncing death penalties. Taking international standards into account, the Kazakh president issued the decree, according to which the implementation of death penalty verdicts will be suspended."
"Now only a small number of OSCE states retain the death penalty and actively carry out executions. These are Belarus, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States of America."
In October, Nazarbayev said it is too early to abolish the death penalty outright because, "society is not ready" for such a change.
Peter Schieder, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), hailed the Kazakh decision and said it provides impetus for an agreement between PACE and the Kazakh Parliament on promoting parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.
Those sentenced to life in prison in Kazakhstan will initially serve their sentences in one of three maximum-security prisons until a special penitentiary is built for them in Pavlodar in northern Kazakhstan.
According to Amnesty International, no official statistics on the application of the death penalty have been published in Kazakhstan since 1998. However, executions were reportedly on the decline, with 39 believed to have taken place in 2001 and 18 in 2002.
Interfax quotes Kazakh Deputy Justice Minister Sabyrzhan Bekbosynov as saying that, based on trends, 30 to 40 people may be sentenced to life imprisonment in 2004. He said that "people with life sentences will be held in prison cells for one to four inmates. They will not work and will be allowed to walk for one hour a day. This is both under the current conditions and also is expected in the new penitentiary that hasn't yet been built."
Anna Crawford is a human rights officer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). All five Central Asian states are members of the OSCE. Kazakhstan was admitted in 1992. Crawford sees the Kazakh move as part of a broader trend by the members of the OSCE.
"The steps by Kazakhstan to introduce a moratorium on executions mean that it's following a general trend within the OSCE towards the abolition of the death penalty, and now only a small number of OSCE states retain the death penalty and actively carry out executions. These are Belarus, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States of America," Crawford says.
Turkmenistan abolished the death penalty outright in December 1999. The maximum penalty in Turkmenistan is now life imprisonment.
Kyrgyzstan imposed a moratorium on executions in 1998. President Askar Akayev has extended it every year since then, most recently on 1 January.
The death penalty still exists in Uzbekistan. However, the Uzbek Parliament last month approved a bill specifying death penalty verdicts only in cases of terrorism and premeditated murder with aggravating circumstances.
Tajikistan also has not abolished the death penalty, but the Tajik Parliament last July adopted a law submitted by President Emomali Rakhmonov that amended the criminal code to reduce the number of crimes for which the death penalty could be applied and abolishing capital punishment for women. The death penalty may now be applied only for treason, terrorism, large-scale drug trafficking and a few other major crimes.