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Central Asia: Trend Is Away From Capital Punishment

The Grand Duchy of Tuscany is noted for being the first sovereign state to abolish the death penalty, in 1786. Today, more than 130 countries have stopped executing prisoners in practice, and of those, around 80 have abolished capital punishment completely. Even in Central Asia, a region not known for its attention to human rights, the death penalty has been on the decline. As the world marks Human Rights Day today, RFE/RL looks at progress being made to rid Central Asia of what Amnesty International calls the "ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."

Prague, 10 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan began observing a moratorium on the death penalty in April, part of a trend that has seen four out of the five countries in the region either stop the practice or abolish it outright.

Shermuhammad Shoev, an adviser to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, explained to RFE/RL that Dushanbe is following the path being taken by most countries around the world.

"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.

Initially, the death penalty in Tajikistan was replaced by a 25-year prison term. But a new bill introducing life imprisonment for the five crimes that carry capital punishment is expected to become law soon.

Dwindling Numbers

"Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan introduced a moratorium on the use of the death penalty even before Turkmenistan abolished the death penalty for all crimes," said Lydia Grigoreva, a Warsaw-based human rights officer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "So out of five countries of Central Asia, we have only one -- it's Uzbekistan -- which still retains the death penalty and [where] executions are still carried out."

Of the 55 members of the OSCE, only Uzbekistan, Belarus, and the United States continue to carry out executions.
Of the 55 members of the OSCE, only Uzbekistan, Belarus, and the United States continue to carry out executions.

Turkmenistan abolished capital punishment outright in December 1999. The maximum penalty is now life imprisonment.

In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev ordered a moratorium on executions in December 2003, pending a decision on the complete abolishment of capital punishment. The country has introduced life imprisonment as an alternative to the death sentence.

In Kyrgyzstan, President Askar Akaev has extended a moratorium on executions every year since 1998. The current moratorium expires on 31 December.

Treatment Of Prisoners

Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu noted that, while executions are no longer being carried out, inmates stuck on death row are often imprisoned in unacceptable conditions.

"Now there are about 160 people sentenced to death in Kyrgyzstan," Bakir-uulu said. "However, the government did not prepare any requisite conditions for them. When we have investigated the issue and visited their detention facilities, we witnessed that five, six, or seven people are being held in one cell."

Anna Sunder-Plassmann, a researcher on Central Asia at Amnesty International in London, called the treatment of death row prisoners in Kyrgyzstan "cruel, inhuman, and degrading."

"The prison conditions on death row in Kyrgyzstan are particularly appalling," Sunder-Plassmann said. "And apart from that, it's a major problem that many of these death-row prisoners have lived in a state of uncertainty as to their ultimate fate because they never know whether the moratorium will be lifted, and they could be executed."

Holding Out

Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian nation to still put prisoners to death. But Uzbek President Islam Karimov recently signaled an apparent shift in that policy during comments to journalists.

"I want to tell you absolutely honestly that my personal opinion is that we must stop pronouncing the death sentence," Karimov said.

Karimov added, however, that the abolition of the death penalty would ultimately depend on public approval.

Sunder-Plassmann noted that when countries abolish the death penalty, it is usually attributable to strong political leadership, not public opinion. She said the idea of Karimov deferring to public opinion in Uzbekistan is "absurd" in a country where freedom of expression on the issue is limited.

Sunder-Plassmann said she believes the abolishment of capital punishment is particularly crucial in Uzbekistan because of the great possibility for judicial error.

"Amnesty International is fundamentally opposed to the death penalty because life is a fundamental human right," Sunder-Plassmann said. "The results of an error are fatal. When we look at Uzbekistan, the scope for judicial error is very, very large. The criminal justice system is seriously flawed. In a lot of death penalty cases that we have documented, there have been serious allegations of torture and ill treatment to extract confessions. Trials are very often unfair. In many death penalty cases, judges or investigators wanted bribes so that a death verdict could be avoided."

Uzbek authorities do not publish comprehensive statistics on death sentences and executions. But some local NGOs estimate that at least 200 people are executed in the country each year.

According to the Rome-based organization Hands Off Cain, more than 5,500 prisoners were executed in 2003 in 62 countries around the world. The group said most of the executions took place in China.

(RFE/RL's Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report.)

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