Prague, 3 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan's lower house of parliament unanimously adopted yesterday a moratorium on the death penalty. The Majlisi Namoyandagon set no end date for the moratorium, which is to take effect immediately after becoming law. Once that happens, the stiffest penalty in the Tajik Penal Code will be 25 years in prison.
The moratorium must still be approved by the upper house of parliament. This step, however is largely considered a formality. President Imomali Rakhmonov, who proposed the moratorium in April, must then sign it into law.
Rakhmonov's representative in parliament, Shermahmad Shoev, said Tajik courts are already abiding by the moratorium. "Keeping in mind the experience of most of the countries in the world that have abolished or suspended this kind of punishment, Tajikistan has also chosen this path," Shoev said. "In Tajikistan, the death sentence will be not carried out anymore and this kind of punishment has been already suspended [in the courts]."
Last year, Tajikistan reduced the scope of the death penalty by decreasing the number of crimes punishable by death from 15 to five and revoking its use against women and minors.
"There has been quite a lot of political pressure on the Central Asian states in this regard, particularly from the European Union, which meant the abolishment of the death penalty as one of the main elements of its foreign policy in relations with third countries." -- Crawford of the OSCE.
The London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International last year recorded 34 death sentences in Tajikistan. But as in the other Central Asian republics, authorities have not disclosed comprehensive statistics on the issue.
Anna Crawford is a Warsaw-based human rights officer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which all five Central Asian states are members. She told RFE/RL that the Tajik move is part of a broader trend in Central Asia and the OSCE region.
"The move of Tajikistan is part a wider trend within the OSCE region. Over the past years we've gradually seen the OSCE states introducing moratoriums and moving to full abolition of the death penalty. There are 55 participating states in the OSCE region. And following this move of Tajikistan there are now only three states that carry out executions in the OSCE region: Belarus, the United States of America, and Uzbekistan," Crawford said.
Turkmenistan abolished the death penalty outright in December 1999. The maximum penalty is now life imprisonment. Both the Kyrgyz and Kazakh presidents have said their countries will also abolish the death penalty in the near future. In the meantime, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has extended the moratorium on executions each year since 1998. In December, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev ordered a moratorium on executions and a review of all pending death sentences for people on death row. Amendments and addenda are being made to the country's legislation to reduce the scope of death sentences.
Crawford said pressure from the international community has helped the introduction of the moratoriums in the region. "There has been quite a lot of political pressure on the Central Asian states in this regard, particularly from the European Union, which meant the abolishment of the death penalty as one of the main elements of its foreign policy in relations with third countries," she said. "Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the former [OSCE] chairman in office, when he traveled to Central Asia [last year] also called for a moratorium on executions."
Concerns remain about Uzbekistan. A UN special rapporteur on torture, following a visit to the country in late 2002, strongly urged the government to introduce a moratorium on executions. The Uzbek parliament in December approved a bill specifying death-penalty verdicts could be handed down only in cases of terrorism and premeditated murder with aggravating circumstances.
But Anna Sunder-Plassmann, a researcher on Central Asia at Amnesty International, expresses concerns about the country's commitment to reduce the scope of death sentences and executions. "In Uzbekistan there have been moves in recent years to reduce the number of offenses in the Criminal Code that carry the death penalty," she told RFE/RL. "But it is not possible to verify whether this has led to any changes on the ground, because of the articles that were dropped, many of them hadn't been in use for years."
Some local NGOs say Uzbek authorities execute at least 200 people every year. Tashkent has not issued any formal statistics on the issue.
(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)