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

Uzbek Executions Cause Concern

Human rights organisations are voicing growing concern at the number of executions in Uzbekistan
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Prisoners in Tashkent's main prison know when one of their number is to be executed - the inmates are confined to their cells and all visits to the prison cancelled. Such days are known in prison slang as "davlenie" or " pressure." And former inmates say they're an increasing feature of prison life


A recent report from the human rights organisation, Amnesty International, claims 55 people have been sentenced to death since January 1 1999. Amnesty believes the actual number is probably higher. The Uzbek authorities' reluctance to publish information relating to death sentences or actual executions makes establishing exact numbers difficult, the organisation said.


Uzbek law enforcement agencies do not dispute the rise in the number of death sentences handed down in 1999 - a direct result, they say, of five bomb explosions in Tashkent the same year. Sixteen people died in the explosions and over 120 were injured.


An official from the National Security Council said during the trial of some of the bomb suspects that the death penalty was only suitable punishment. The execution of "terrorists", he said, would serve as a lesson to others.


Nineteen people were sentenced to death by firing squad after being convicted of involvement in the explosions. Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, expressed regret over the severity of the sentences, but did not commute them.


The public prosecutor's office has confirmed all 19 people have since been shot. The office refuses, however, to give details on those sentenced or executed for crimes not related to the bombings.


Human rights groups have criticised the Uzbek government for its crackdown on religious groups in the wake of the bomb attacks. The authorities pointed the finger at Islamic fundamentalists and a spate of arbitrary arrests soon followed.


Mikhail Ardzinov, chairman of the Independent Organization on Human Rights in Uzbekistan, believes the republic's weak and politicised judicial system means that many convictions are unsafe.


Human rights activists have reported several cases of people receiving death sentences based on circumstantial evidence or even on the strength of confessions extracted under torture.


Amnesty cited the case of two brothers, Oibek and Uigun Ruzmetov, from Khozarasp. The two men were sentenced to death in July 1999 following their conviction for killing six people, including five militiamen, during an attempted bomb attack on the Charvak reservoir near Tashkent. The brothers were also convicted of belonging to an extremist religious group.


Their mother, Darmon Sultanova, said her husband was arrested shortly after the police had taken her sons away. The next day, the militia arrived at her house and told Darmon to come and visit her husband. She said she was taken to a militia station, made to partially undress and sit handcuffed for hours. Later in the day, she said, her sons were brought past the room where she was being held.


The Ruzmetov brothers said after their trial, they had confessed to all the charges after seeing their mother handcuffed, half-naked and crying. The Amnesty report claimed Uigun Ruzmetov's wife was also subjected to violence.


In a recent interview, Darmon said she had yet to be allowed to see her sons.


"I don't even know if they are still alive," she said.


In 1998, the Uzbek criminal code was amended and the number of crimes punishable by death reduced from thirteen to eight. Human rights organisations, however, are calling for its total abolition.


But such demands appear out of step with Uzbek public opinion. The death penalty, especially among Tashkent residents, still enjoys considerable support.


"They were right to shoot the scum that planted those bombs," said Ludmila Reshetnikova, a Tashkent shop worker. "After all, they knew people would die, they didn't have any pity for us, so why should we pity them?"


Support for the death penalty stems from a fear of religious extremism, especially after the bomb attacks in February 1999, and the perception that strict justice is a pre-requisite of peace and stability.


But, as Ardzinov said, unless punishments are just and based on sound convictions, how is one to distinguish between judicial execution and murder?


Galima Bukharbaeva and Shavkat Alimov for IWPR, Tashkent.