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Kazakhstan: Astana In Midst Of Lively Public Debate On Merits Of Death Penalty

Kazakhstan is in the midst of a lively public debate on the merits of the death penalty following statements by President Nursultan Nazarbaev in which he raised the possibility that capital punishment might eventually be abolished. RFE/RL reviews the challenges related to the issue and the arguments being put forward on both sides of the debate.

Prague, 27 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has said the country should seriously consider imposing a moratorium on the death penalty, with a view toward abolishing it altogether at a later time. The idea has triggered a lively public debate in the Central Asian republic among politicians, the public and the media.

Vera Tkachenko is manager of the Astana-based Central Asia office of Penal Reform International, a nongovernmental organization. "This issue is widely discussed in Kazakhstan, and I think that our government will be brave enough to take this political decision. And I think the situation may change in the near future, given the fact that President Nursultan Nazarbaev has spoken in favor of a review of the policy on the death penalty," she said.

Tkachenko noted that Astana is applying for observer status at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. One of the conditions for a nation to be granted this status is for it to impose a strict moratorium on executions or to abolish the death penalty outright.

Tkachenko said a public awareness campaign needs to begin in earnest to inform the Kazakh public about the issues. "In principle, public opinion is always [in favor of capital punishment] even in those countries that have already abolished the death penalty a long time ago. There is a need for educational programs and for public awareness projects that will explain to the public [the benefits of a moratorium]."

Tkachenko welcomed the Justice Ministry's initiative last month to organize a public forum on the issue. The debate, held in parliament, was broadcast live on Kazakh television and included the participation of NGOs and other groups.

In October, Penal Reform International also organized a conference on the issue, together with the Justice Ministry and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. One of the recommendations to come out of the conference was the establishment of a coordination council aiming at increasing public awareness about the issue.

A poll conducted this month by the Kazakh Justice Ministry found that 62 percent of respondents were in favor of the death penalty. One of the arguments often cited in favor of executions is that the death penalty acts as a deterrent against crime.

Gabbas Qabysh is a well-known Kazakh journalist and writer. He believes in the deterrent effect of the death penalty and feels Kazakh society is not yet ready to consider a moratorium. "For Kazakhstan, it will never do to join such debate [on the possible ban of the death penalty] just 12 years after getting its sovereignty. It is too early to ban the death penalty. Our society's mentality is not on a sufficient level to end the death penalty yet. We are not a country with the rule of law. Murders, even contract killings, are increasing in Kazakhstan. We can't stop the death penalty," Qabysh said.

Serikbay Alibaev is a member of the Kazakh parliament and also feels strongly that capital punishment acts as a deterrent. "The death penalty is given to those who have committed serious and terrible crimes. If we ban the death penalty, can you imagine what criminals can do -- without fear?"

Judit Arenas of the London-based rights group Amnesty International noted that a UN study -- conducted in 1988 and updated in 1996 -- concluded that there is no correlation between countries which have the death penalty and lower homicide rates. And Arenas suggested that there is another drawback to the death penalty: "That has been explained by criminologists and other experts in that area to be [counterproductive] because they believe that the death penalty actually brutalizes society and as a result people are more immune. You know, they don't have the same respect for human dignity as in those states where they don't apply capital punishment."

Despite public support for the death penalty, Tkachenko said law should win out over emotion. "The experience shows that the abolition of death penalty is always a political decision. Politicians should be brave enough to take this decision and admit that the death penalty cannot be a panacea for the crime rate in the country, that the death penalty cannot stop crime, and [that] the death penalty will not threaten people [not to commit crimes]. There should be the political will -- and the goodwill -- of the governments, of parliaments [and] of the president of the countries to make the step," Tkachenko said.

Anti-death-penalty activists point out that the fair application of the death penalty can never be guaranteed and say that a state that kills has no moral right to demand that its citizens not kill.

No official, comprehensive statistics on the application of the death penalty in Kazakhstan are available. The newspaper "Stolichnyi Prospekt" recently reported that the number of death verdicts decreased in Kazakhstan from 63 in 1999 to 39 in 2001. During the same time period, the number of executions decreased from 40 to 16.

The chairman of the Kazakh Supreme Court, Kairat Mami, said in September that 31 people had so far been executed in 2002. Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency earlier this month quoted the Kazakh Supreme Court's press service as saying that 18 people had been sentenced to death in 2002.

Nazarbaev signed a law on 28 December introducing amendments to the Criminal Code that would reduce the number of cases in which the death penalty can be applied. "The number of people sentenced to death is reducing now. And there is a tendency that this number will [continue to decrease]. Moreover, Kazakhstan is planning to introduce [sentences of] life imprisonment that will also, I think, play a role in the reducing of death-penalty sentences," Tkachenko of Penal Reform International said.

Interfax quoted Petr Posmakov, an official in Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry, as saying a moratorium on executions will be decided when sentences of life imprisonment are allowed by law. That is expected some time this year. He noted that the number of death-penalty verdicts handed down by Kazakh courts was cut in half after the maximum sentence for premeditated murder was raised. He predicted that the number of death sentences handed down will continue to decrease, as well.

Elsewhere in Central Asia, Turkmenistan is the only country that has abolished the death penalty outright. In Kyrgyzstan, President Askar Akaev signed a decree earlier this month extending for one more year a moratorium on capital punishment first introduced in 1998.

In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, capital punishment remains in force. President Islam Karimov said in September 2001 that some 100 people are executed in Uzbekistan each year. According to the Tajik Supreme Court, 25 people were executed in Tajikistan last year.

(Merhat Sharipzhanov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)