Kazakstan: Death Penalty Debated

President Nazarbaevs' call for a moratorium on capital punishment has prompted a national debate on the issue.

Kazakstan: Death Penalty Debated

President Nazarbaevs' call for a moratorium on capital punishment has prompted a national debate on the issue.

Kazakstan is in the grip of a nationwide debate on the abolition of the death penalty - a move proposed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev who's not normally known for his concern for human rights.

Analysts believe Nazarbaev's unusual proposal has been prompted by his desire for Kazakstan to join the Council of Europe, which is dedicated to the promotion of democracy and civil liberties, and will not admit nations who practice capital punishment.

The debate was initiated at an international conference in Almaty at the beginning of this month.

Nazarbaev, whose jails are among the most crowded in the world, has never previously been noted as an opponent of capital punishment. But he is believed to covet the international economic advantages offered to the council's member countries.

Conflict resolution expert Oleg Sidorov told IWPR, "The president wants to abolish the death penalty to gain influence with western countries. Abolition could bring financial help for many government programmes, including those that support law enforcement bodies."

The proposal now being debated is for a moratorium on executions starting from January 1, 2003. It was reinforced in April in Nazarbaev's "Message to the People" announcement, published in the local media, in which he suggested that life imprisonment could replace capital punishment.

At present, Kazakstan imposes the death penalty for murder, treason, sabotage, crimes against the constitution and state security, as well as certain types of military misconduct.

The former Soviet republic has a grim record on such matters. According to statistics from the general prosecutor's office, more than half of the 266 criminals sentenced to death from 1997 to 2001 have already been executed. Only 27 received a presidential pardon.

Kazakstan was heavily criticised by international human rights organisations in 1995 when the execution of a prisoner was broadcast live on television - a move apparently aimed at terrifying the population into abiding by the law.

This u-turn on capital punishment is now being viewed as a cynical attempt to curry favour with the West, after Nazarbaev's name became synonymous with tyranny, civil rights abuses and media oppression.

This poor international image has led to the president taking certain steps towards a more democratic rule.

As part of his bid to overhaul his reputation, he created the post of human rights ombudsman two months ago. Bolat Baikadamov, who was appointed to the position, said recently, "A state's attitude to the death penalty defines the level of its development. There is no place for capital punishment in a civilised country."

Yet the republic's law enforcement agencies - and a significant section of the population - want to retain it. Statistics issued by the Kazak Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law show 75 per cent of the population opposes its abolition.

The pro-execution camp argues that switching to life imprisonment would cost money and remove an effective deterrent.

Pyotr Posmakov, head of the justice ministry's penal committee, said it would require the construction of a special prison likely to cost some 11.5 billion tenge - around 74 million US dollars - that would take two years to complete.

"As taxpayers, we already maintain prisons and pay law enforcement bodies to cut down crime," protested businessman Evgeny Myakinin. "Abolishing the death penalty will only stop criminals fearing for their lives."

While the death penalty is currently imposed in 84 countries, there are 111 nations where it has either been abolished or suspended.

Evgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan international bureau for human rights, said, "The state should not be on the same level as the criminal, as society cannot exist normally if it knows that murder is legalised."

Justice minister Georgy Kim was more circumspect. "Issues surrounding the death penalty can only be solved with a complex approach," he said. "All aspects need to be examined, taking public opinion into account, and learning from the experience of nations who have already gone through this stage in their development."

A special coordinating council has been created as a result of the October conference. It includes government agencies, non-governmental organisations and educational establishments, and hopes to advance arguments likely to influence people in favour of abolition.

Svetlana Moiseeva is a an independent journalist in Almaty

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