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Tajik Penal Reforms Disappoint

Proposed changes to criminal code won't tackle harsh practice of burying executed prisoners in anonymous graves.
By Nargis Zokirova

Rights activists in Tajikistan have criticised plans to update the country's Soviet-style criminal code, saying the reforms are superficial and will do little to humanise its harsh penalties.


Parliament in October voted to overhaul the system on the prompting of the country's president, Imomali Rahmonov.


It is widely accepted that changes are called for, reflecting society's changing needs since the civil war of 1992 to 1997 and the legacy the conflict left behind.


Abdumannon Halikov, deputy head of the constitutional law committee in the Majlis-i Namoyandagon, (lower house of parliament), sounded optimistic that "the opportunity has arisen to re-examine criminal legislation and humanise it".


But while most observers accept the government's assessment that the time has come for change, many say the proposed reforms are not far-reaching enough.


Junaidullo Ibodov, a lawyer from the NGO Media Tajikistan, said the changes would not affect the harshest section in the criminal code which denies relatives of executed prisoners access to their bodies and burial places.


He urged the authorities to emulate Kazakstan, which discloses the grave sites to relatives after an interval.


"We should produce the body or mark the burial place of an executed person after a certain period, for example after two years, as is the practice in Kazakstan" he said. "That way relatives can bury them according to religious customs and traditions. This would be humane and just."


Kazakstan's current practice is the result of successful lobbying in 1998 by rights activists. Although legislators refused to allow relatives to bury criminals immediately after their death, they agreed to reburial after two years.


Not so in Tajikistan, where item 3 of article 221 of the criminal code stipulates that after a death sentence relatives may not be given the body or told where it is buried.


"A person should not be punished after his death, as this punishes his relatives," said Oinikhol Bobonazarova, a human rights activist. "This person is a criminal in the eyes of the state, but he is not a criminal to his friends and relatives."


Rights activists object also to the unofficial policy of not informing relatives of convicted prisoners that a death sentence has been carried out. They are either not informed on time, or not informed at all.


This is not a result of the criminal code, which obliges the institution where the death sentence is carried out to inform the internal ministry of the execution, which in turn must inform the court that delivered the sentence within three days.


The court then reports the death to the registry office, according to the executed person's last place of residence. The procedure should not take more than 10 days. In practice, though, reports take months to reach the relatives, if ever.


The wife of one man sentenced to death for terrorism said she only found out about her husband's execution a month and a half after his death in summer 2002 - and by coincidence.


On a visit to her husband she learned he had been transferred five days before to a prison in Kurgan-Tyube in the southern Khatlon region, which is well known unofficially as a place of execution. She received no information about the transfer from the prison administration.


"I found out about my husband's death from his relatives who also found out about it coincidentally," she said. "I was not sent any notification about it myself. I lived in complete ignorance throughout these terrible one-and-a-half months."


She hoped to the very last that her husband's case would be reconsidered as it was under examination by the UN Human Rights Committee, but the sentence was still carried out.


"Our three children still don't know about it," she added. "I don't even know where his grave is. My children and I aren't to blame for what happened. Perhaps he is still alive and there was a mistake, because my husband wasn't guilty."


Tajikistan remains wedded to the death penalty. Amnesty International reported 74 people were sentenced to death in 2001, though only five were carried out.


The organisation says the figures may be incomplete as official sources divulge little information. Other sources believe around 30 death sentences have been carried out in Tajikistan this year alone. Most were for murder, or for terrorism and banditry crimes committed during the 1992-1997 civil war.


The refusal of the courts to let relatives of criminals bury their dead is a burden to Muslims. More than 95 per cent of Tajiks are Muslim and many observe the religion strictly. Islamic tradition dictates that the dead must be washed and prayers read over them from the Koran.


Rights activists regret that the planned modernisation of the Tajik criminal code includes no reform of the section concerning death sentences, even though practice suggests the rights of this category of criminals are more often violated than those of lesser criminals.


In the meantime, the number of nameless anonymous graves in and around the jail in Kurgan-Tyube continues to grow. Rights activists have no idea of their number. This information is a state secret in Tajikistan and for the foreseeable future is likely to remain so.


Nargis Zokirova is a journalist with the newspaper Vecherny Dushanbe.