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Death Row Protest in Kyrgyzstan

Convicts ask for review of cases as they await final decision on death penalty ban.
By Cholpon Orozbekova
Prisoners on death row in Kyrgyzstan are calling on the authorities to review their sentences, arguing that the cases against them were fabricated by the government of former president Askar Akaev.

The protest is just the latest of many that have taken place in Kyrgyzstan over the last year since the March revolution, as people in all walks of life press the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiev to right past - and current - wrongs.

Kyrgyzstan has not executed anyone since 1998, but convicts complain that the conditions in which they are kept are tantamount to a slow death sentence.

In a letter to the president dated March 26, a group of 20 people on death row asked him to set up a commission with representatives from the prosecutor’s office, the judiciary, lawyers and non-government organisations, NGOs, to review their cases and deliver fresh rulings.

“During the investigations, every method was used to obtain confessions, from torture and forgery to false witnesses,” said the letter. “It was a cover-up for the real criminals, who continue to do their dirty deeds.”

The convictions - for a range of serious crimes including contract killings - were passed by “Akaev’s venal judges” on the basis of this manufactured evidence, the convicts said in their letter.

One convict called Marat spoke of the methods he said were used on him and his fellow-inmates. “They used gas masks, broke fingers and toes, and after [I regained] consciousness, they got [me] to sign a blank sheet of paper, which they then filled out however they wanted,” he said.

Marat alleges that on the orders of a powerful rival businessman, he was sentenced to death eight years ago for a contract killing he says he did not commit.

“The revolutionary regime should correct the mistakes and sins of the judicial system of the Akaev administration. Many of us imprisoned here were set up, especially for contract killings,” he said.

Two inmates interviewed by IWPR were convicted for an explosion in 1997 which killed three passengers in a minibus taxi in the southern city of Osh. One man, a citizen of Uzbekistan, says he and two others convicted in the case were framed.

“We were arrested as terrorists and a big case was opened. But I only met my accomplices in court,” he said.

Justice Minister Marat Kayipov is not unsympathetic to the prisoners’ demands, although he says all their convictions must stand until otherwise proven.

“A Supreme Court sentence is not subject to appeal, and can only be examined if some new circumstances arise,” he told IWPR. “At the moment we cannot say whether we will create a commission; we need to look at that.

“But a state commission could be created, there would be no harm in that. If the state is sentencing them to death, then there must be a guarantee of their guilt.”

Parliamentary deputy Kubatbek Baibolov disagrees, saying it would be “unlawful” to review these cases.

“We must not forget that there are victims in every case. What happens if they protest as well?” he asked.

Kyrgyzstan introduced a moratorium on executions eight years ago, in line with a trend for former Soviet states to impose a temporary ban ahead of final abolition.

The justice minister backs the current moratorium, on the grounds that convictions are never 100 per cent certain.

“Internationally, there have been cases where prisoners who’ve been in jail for 20 years are proved innocent after DNA testing,” said Kayipov.

But as a consequence, convicts remain in a sort of limbo, living for years in the conditions reserved for death penalty prisoners rather than being transferred to a general prison.

Currently there are about 200, living two or three to a cell averaging four square metres with insufficient air and light, and lacking food and medical treatment.

The letter says, during the eight-year moratorium, 72 people have died of illness or suicide, and it claims another 70 are vulnerable.

“Many people here kill themselves. At first I too wanted to die, but my cellmates stopped me and helped me learn how to survive,” said one inmate who would not give his name, adding that a 76-year-old died recently after nine years’ confinement, and a young man died of tuberculosis a few days prior to the interview.

“I don’t understand why the state declares a moratorium if we are all going to die here anyway,” he said.

Parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov says conditions for death row inmates are inhumane.

“The situation needs to be changed urgently. What humanity can we talk about when we have being torturing them for eight years?” he asked.

The Kyrgyz authorities are currently making plans to abolish the death penalty entirely, and those currently on death row will probably have their sentences commuted to life.

But convicts say this will make little difference unless conditions change.

“It doesn’t make our lives any easier,” said another inmate who asked to remain anonymous. “If the state plans to hold lifers the way they do now, then it would be better to die.”

Cholpon Orozbekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.