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

Tajik Death Penalty Debate

Many Tajiks fear a moratorium on capital punishment could lead to an escalation in crime
By IWPR Central Asia

A debate is gaining ground in Tajikistan over the introduction of a temporary ban on capital punishment.


Recent UN calls for its abolition worldwide have prompted some Tajik politicians, intellectuals and human rights workers to push for a moratorium on the death penalty.


But some believe Tajikistan's religious heritage and recent history militate against such a move.


An article in Nadjot newspaper, published by the opposition party the Islamic Revival of Tajikistan, concluded unequivocally that a suspension of capital punishment would contradict Islamic law.


First Deputy of the Supreme Council, Mahmadali Vatanov, pointed out that critics of capital punishment should bear in mind that the majority of states in America, supposedly the most democratic country in the world, execute criminals.


Vatanov and other parliamentary deputies have warned that a moratorium might result in an upsurge of criminal activity. Some see capital punishment as the only meaningful deterrent against the kind of lawlessness that's engulfed the country in the aftermath of the civil war.


Tajikistan was one of the poorest republics in the former Soviet Union, but after the recent civil war the country sank even deeper into despair. Many of those who fought in the conflict turned to crime in order to survive.


As a result, levels of robbery, drug smuggling, gangster feuds and murder rose dramatically. Explosions and shootings are now an almost weekly occurrence here, even though the government does its best to keep the incidents out of the press.


The government has appeared powerless to stem the crime wave and restore law and order.


Its attempts to disarm former combatants failed. And efforts to place young unemployed men in training programmes have met with mixed results, largely because the skills they acquired offered them little prospect of making a decent living.


Fears of a further escalation in crime were raised last summer when the government decided to demobilise 4,000 former supporters of the United Tajik Opposition, which fought against the government during the five-year civil war.


While capital punishment may deter some of Tajikistan's impoverished citizens from turning to crime, there's a general recognition that innocent people may be sentenced to death.


Saifullo Safarov, deputy chairman of the ruling Popular Democratic Party of Tajikistan, is one of the few in favour of a change in the law. "It is time for Tajikistan to start living according to the international standards," he told IWPR. "The absence of a moratorium is evidence of our backwardness."


That said, he's not in favour of outright abolition, believing that capital punishment should be used in "exceptional cases".


The country's supreme court sentenced 33 people to death in 2000, three times as many as in 1999, most of the convictions relating to offences committed in 1998-1999.


The death penalty, normally carried out by firing squads in prisons, is reserved for criminals involved in armed attacks, terrorism, murder, drug trafficking, treason and coup attempts.


At the end of October 2000, for example, rebel colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdiev was sentenced to death for his attempt to overthrow the national government.


Condemned prisoners are entitled to appeal for a pardon directly from the president. In practice, this is rarely granted.


Only one condemned prisoner has so far been reprieved: a 20-year-old university student convicted of murdering her lover. The girl's fingerprints were not found on the gun, prompting NGOs to express grave doubts over her conviction. Her sentence has been commuted, and the case is now being reinvestigated.


While the OSCE and the UN Tajikistan Office of Peace Building would prefer a moratorium, it seems that executions will continue for as long as there's social unrest.


Gruesome crimes, such as a recent robbery when 11 people, including four children, were murdered, don't help the abolitionists' case. Nor do incidents such as the bombing last year of a car belonging to the office of the European Union in Dushanbe.


Add the presence in the country of Juma Namangani's Islamic guerrillas, and ever-increasing drug trafficking, and Tajikistan's judges are likely to be opting for capital punishment for some time to come.


Lidia Isamova is an editor with the news agency Asia Plus in Dushanbe