Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Return to Death Penalty Floated in Kyrgyzstan

Parliament’s refusal to sign international ban on executions seen as a bad sign.
By Anara Yusupova
A proposal to restore capital punishment has caused debate and outrage in Kyrgyzstan, where the death penalty has not been applied for more than a decade.



Now being discussed by members of parliament, the idea was first floated by Murat Sutalinov, head of Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Committee, who even suggested that executions be carried out in public.



Like other post-Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan no longer has the death penalty on its lawbooks.



After a moratorium on carrying out executions lasting from 1998, capital punishment was formally abolished in 2007. The 189 convicts on death row had their sentences commuted to life. There are currently 204 individuals serving life sentences, according to Citizens Against Corruption, a human rights group.



Sutalinov made his controversial proposal when the subject of tougher penalties came up at a September 23 meeting of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, a body which brings together the heads of various police and security agencies.



“Kyrgyzstan should not look to the West or the OSCE,” he said. “It should introduce capital punishment for certain crimes. In some cases, executions should be held in public. In my view, this will help reduce the crime rate.”



His proposal was immediately backed by the secretary of Security Council, Adakhan Madumarov, who asked, “Why should society maintain people who have committed serious crimes against it? Even the United States, regarded as a model democracy, has three methods of capital punishment.”



The Security Council – which is now being dismantled as part of wide-ranging reforms announced by President Kurmanbek Bakiev – was quick to say that its head was speaking in a purely personal capacity.



“Madumarov’s view in no way reflects the official stance of the Kyrgyz authorities or his own position as secretary of the Security Council,” said a statement from the organisation. “The decision taken at the Security Council session makes no mention of returning this penalty to legal practice.”



Despite this retraction, Sutalinov’s idea has become a live issue in Kyrgyzstan.



On November 11, the Ak Jol faction in the Kyrgyz parliament voted not to back a motion to ratify a United Nations agreement banning the death penalty. Since Ak Jol dominates the legislature, the decision means parliament as a whole is likely to vote against ratification when it comes to debate it.



The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires signatories to ban the use of capital punishment. Since Kyrgyzstan has already done so, signing up to the protocol should not have been contentious. Refusing to do so has been seen by some analysts as reflecting a broader authoritarian impulse among the ruling elite.



Ak Jol’s debate showed that opinion among party members was divided, but those who held the majority opinion cited arguments ranging from the need to crack down on crime to the high cost of maintaining life prisoners. One member, Askar Salymbekov, said public opinion was 80 or 90 per cent in favour of reinstatement, the AKIpress news agency reported.



The parliamentary committee for international affairs had reviewed the matter the previous day, and by contrast backed ratification of the UN protocol. Addressing that meeting, Justice Minister Nurlan Tursunkulov said the experience of other countries clearly showed that having the death penalty did nothing to cut the crime rate, according to AKIpress.



The fact that Sutalinov and Madumarov, both of them government officials, were so outspokenly in favour of the death penalty, set off equally strong reactions from opponents of such a reversal in policy.



Kyrgyzstan’s human rights ombudsman, Tursunbek Akun, issued a statement saying that coming from such senior officials, the proposal tarnished the country’s reputation.



“Any call for public executions, the practice in medieval times and under fascism, will push our country over into the abyss of lawlessness and obscurantism,” said the statement.



The ombudsman expressed fears that the officials’ remarks were “a trial balloon to test public opinion”.



Interviewed by IWPR, Omurbek Tekebayev, who heads the major opposition party Ata Meken, agreed that “top officials wanted to test public reactions”. He pointed out that if this had not been the case, both Sutalinov and Madumarov would have been sacked for stepping so far out of line.



Tekebayev also expressed concern that Sutalinov was articulating a more general policy shift away from honouring commitments to international conventions and democratic standards.



Temir Sariev of the smaller Ak Shumkar party said Sutalinov’s and Madumarov’s comments were “irresponsible and reckless”



The death penalty issue, he said, “has been dealt with in line with international conventions. I do not think it makes any sense to return to it.”



Sariev suggested that the authorities raised such issues merely to show a hard line stance and intimidate their opponents.



Mars Sariev, a leading political analyst in Kyrgyzstan, believes the authorities came up with the idea as they realised it would leave them in a win-win situation.



“They realise it is not a feasible option, as it would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s position in the international arena, above all in Europe, which is an investor and sponsor,” he said.



Yet as in many countries, reintroducing capital punishment appears to have broad public support in Kyrgyzstan. Sariev thinks and the “tough on crime” approach is bound to make the Bakiev administration more popular.



In the end, though, the president would have to veto the idea – scoring points for his democratic credentials along the way, said Sariev.



“In reality, everyone understands that reinstating capital punishment is impossible, unless Kyrgyzstan wants to become a totalitarian state,” he concluded.



Impossible or not, the spectre of capital punishment has alarmed Kyrgyzstan’s human rights community, which sent a joint letter to Bakiev on October 9 urging him to deal with Sutalinov and Madumarov. The following day, human rights activists marked World Day Against the Death Penalty by gathering in Bishkek to call for the right to life to be respected and a the penitentiary system made more humane.



“As a human rights activist, I oppose the introduction of the death penalty in Kyrgyzstan,” Aziza Abdirasulova, who heads the human rights group Kylym Shamy, told IWPR. “It should remain a thing of the past; 137 countries have abolished this form of punishment and I don’t think there’s any reason why our country should introduce it.”



Anara Yusupova is a pseudonym for a journalist in Kyrgyzstan.



This article was produced under IWPR’s Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media programme, funded by the European Commission. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.