A new report from Amnesty International describes the use of the death penalty in Tajikistan. The picture that the London-based watchdog group has created is incomplete because of official secrecy surrounding capital punishment, yet its findings are nonetheless alarming. According to Amnesty, prisoners in Tajikistan are often executed in secret following unfair trials -- with no advance warning given to their families.
Prague, 1 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a new report, the human rights watchdog group Amnesty International condemns Tajikistan's use of the death penalty as cruel and random and says executions are often carried out in secret, in violation of international human rights norms.
The report, titled "Tajikistan: Deadly Secrets -- The Death Penalty in Law and Practice," is being welcomed by human rights activists, who say it gives factual confirmation to concerns they've long had concerning capital punishment in Tajikistan.
Marjorie Farquharson is the special-project researcher for the death penalty at Amnesty International. She said: "In the year 2001, we learned of 74 death sentences [in Tajikistan], and of these, five confirmed executions. We learned of only two pardons. And in the other cases, it really seems probable that the people are dead. In the first six months of this year, we already have received information on 29 people sentenced to death."
Amnesty says it is aware of 133 people who have been arrested on capital charges, convicted, and sentenced to death since 1998 -- 29 of them in the first six months of 2002 alone. Seven people are known to have been pardoned over the past four years, and 17 executed by firing squad.
Due to official secrecy laws, Farquharson said, the true number of capital sentences and executions is likely to be higher.
Farquharson said the increasing use of the death penalty in Tajikistan is particularly alarming given the country's flawed legal system inherited from Soviet times, when, she said, it was heavily biased in favor of prosecutors. There are 15 capital crimes in Tajikistan, ranging from murder to nonviolent offenses, such as drug dealing.
Farquharson noted that Tajik legal procedures in general do not meet international standards for a fair trial. "If you're arrested [in Tajikistan], you stay in the hands of the people investigating the case. It can be as long as 15 months before you ever appear before any court. Another [problem] is access to a defense lawyer. In Tajik terms, arrest means once you've been presented formally with charges. And, of course, this can be months and months into the investigation of a case," Farquharson said.
In the meantime, Farquharson said, prisoners are subjected to "very brutal" treatment to obtain confessions. She said that in every case about which Amnesty has detailed information, people sentenced to death say they have been tortured. "The allegations are quite horrifying. They involve very ferocious beating, and they also involve use of electric-shock treatment quite systematically under fingernails or on sexual organs. And there are cases of male prisoners being raped, as well," Farquharson said.
Such confessions, she said, are still used as evidence in Tajik courts.
Salimbay Fathulloyev, head of Tajikistan's Supreme Court, firmly disagrees, noting that Amnesty did not contact him in the course of preparing its report. Fathulloyev said Tajikistan's legal system has improved, notably since July, when Tajik authorities transferred the administration of prisons from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. "If during the trial we find out that there was no fair investigation, for example, if the lawyer has no access to the prisoner, or if the prisoner was kept for a long time without official charge, the Supreme Court sends the case back for another investigation. And these kinds of situations, when cases have been re-examined, have happened many times," Fathulloyev said.
Fathulloyev cited the case of Dilfuza Numonova, whose sentence was commuted in July 2000 from the death penalty to 15 years in prison. Numonova said she had confessed to the murder of her lover only after being beaten by investigators.
Fathulloyev also told RFE/RL that the Supreme Court has taken measures to counter torture practices during investigations and has punished officers who have been found to have tortured prisoners.
Farquharson said that relatives of death-row prisoners in Tajikistan are subjected to their own kind of torture: mental cruelty. Families of prisoners are not informed when requests for clemency have been denied until the convicts have been moved to death row. They are also deprived of the chance to visit their relatives before the execution. "When you look at what happens to the relatives of prisoners on death row in Tajikistan, they are exposed to a maximum of suffering. They don't have any right to information, to know when a prisoner's petition for clemency has been turned down, and when, therefore, they can be expected to go for execution. There's absolutely no reason why authorities couldn't inform prisoners' relatives that they were about to transfer the prisoner, why the prisoners' relatives couldn't accompany them and be there at the execution site to say good-bye. But this isn't foreseen in Tajik law," Farquharson said.
Farquharson also alleged that President Imomali Rakhmonov may be using the international campaign against terrorism as a pretext for settling scores with his political opponents. "I think the war against terrorism does give Tajikistan -- like many other governments -- the vocabulary and the rhetoric that makes it seem all right to arrest opponents. And the fact that they have the death penalty for 15 crimes, and that they have a tradition of using it widely, makes this quite an alarming prospect for anybody who happens to be picked up or considered to be an opponent or potential terrorist," Farquharson said.
Tajikistan's greater international profile due to its support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition has meant the country has taken some steps forward in the area of human rights. A governmental commission met for the first time in June to examine the country's reporting commitments to United Nations treaty bodies.
However, Farquharson said the commission has so far failed to substantially address the use of the death penalty, noting that two prisoners, brothers Dovud and Sherali Nazriyev, were executed in June while their cases were being reviewed by the commission.
Elsewhere in Central Asia, Turkmenistan is the only state to have legally abolished the death penalty. That move came in 1999, and Amnesty says it hopes Turkmenistan's neighbors will follow suit. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev decreed a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in 1998. The Uzbek government introduced legislation in October 2001 that restricts the number of criminal offenses carrying the death penalty from eight to four.
Concerning legal systems throughout the region, Farquharson said: "I think the treatment of relatives and the secrecy surrounding the death penalty is common to the other Central Asian states. I think it's a legacy of Soviet law. And it just hasn't changed and has not been brought up to meet international standards of transparency and fairness."
Aaron Rhodes agrees. He's the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, based in Vienna. "You're going to find the same kinds of problems with respect to the publication of statistics, information, transparency; the same kind of problems with respect to the use of torture and the admission of confessions that have been obtained under torture; [and] the same problems with respect to fair trial standards. The defendants don't have proper rights in any of these [Central Asian] countries," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the use of torture by the authorities is widespread in all Central Asian countries, especially in Uzbekistan, where he said it has reached "epidemic" proportions.
(Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)