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

Uzbekistan: Corruption on Death Row

Pressure to call moratorium on death penalty grows after claims that bribes can buy convicts out of death row.
By Zamir Ahmedov

Relatives of convicts on Uzbekistan’s death row have claimed that corruption within the republic’s law enforcement agencies is calling the entire judicial system into question.


Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture, a non-governmental organisation campaigning on the issue, alleges that the families of condemned prisoners are often pressured to pay bribes to “buy” the life of their loved ones.


“This extortion can begin when a criminal case is opened, continue during the investigation and court proceedings and finally at the moment a verdict is issued,” said Tamara Chikunova, who heads the NGO.


Shefkhia Tulyaganova, whose 20-year-old son Refat Tulyaganov was executed in 2001 on a murder charge, told IWPR, “It is disappointing that human life can be bought in this way. It means that those with money can commit murder, and go unpunished.”


The price of commuting a death sentence to life imprisonment can vary between 10,000 and 60,000 US dollars, according to evidence gathered by the NGO.


The group is now calling on President Islam Karimov to impose a moratorium on the death penalty – as a step towards abolishing it completely – given that there are so many question-marks over the judicial process.


One member of the Tashkent lawyers’ association, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed to IWPR that bribe-taking is widespread. “Officials know that relatives are prepared to do everything possible to save their loved one from a death sentence,” he said.


“I myself had one criminal case where I had to act as mediator between the relatives of the defendant and the judge to negotiate a price and deliver the money.”


Tulyaganova alleges that soon after her son was arrested and accused of fatally wounding one of three men who attacked him at a disco, she was approached by officials and asked for 3,000 dollars.


As the court case progressed, the price went up 10,000 dollars – a huge amount for the average family in Uzbekistan, where the average monthly wage is around 30 dollars.


“When I told the official that I could raise only 200 dollars, he replied, ‘Here you can’t even change a full stop for a comma for that amount’,” claimed Tulyaganova, wiping away tears. The family was unable to pay the amount, and the execution went ahead as planned.


Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia department confirmed that Uzbekistan’s judiciary was cause for serious concern. “We have received numerous reports about corruption,” she said.


Money is extorted for many reasons, not just to reduce sentences, she claimed, adding, “There have been cases when family members had to pay to attend the trial of a relative, or for the transfer of food or medicine packages to detainees.”


President Islam Karimov has acknowledged that such malpractice exists in the legal system, and has called for it to be stamped out, but has so far resisted calls for capital punishment to be abolished.


Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture, which was set up by Tamara Chikunova after her only son Dmitry was executed in 2000, say that there are factors other than bribery bringing the justice system into disrepute.


The NGO claims that every death sentence handed down in the former Soviet republic Uzbekistan also carries a serious risk of miscarriage of justice, as the courts can base verdicts on circumstantial evidence, or solely on confessions extracted under torture.


Chikunova said that as the police are under continual pressure to return a 100 per cent success rate in solving crimes, suspects are often “fitted up” not only for the offence they are accused of, but other unsolved cases as well.


Human Rights Watch concurs. “As the system is so flawed, it is difficult to be sure that that a person has had a fair trial and has been able to launch a [proper] defence,” said Shields.


In May 2003, 26-year-old Tashkent resident Alexander Kornetov was sentenced to death for murder after he contacted the police to complain that a woman had borrowed money from him and then disappeared.


When the decapitated body of a woman was found later, Kornetov was blamed for the murder and found guilty on purely circumstantial evidence.


After extensive lobbying by his defence lawyers and Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture, this was commuted to 20 years imprisonment. His family and legal team continue to stress his innocence.


The NGO’s opposition to capital punishment is also based on the way is carried out. After the execution by shooting, the body is not passed over to relatives, and its place of burial is never revealed, greatly adding to the family’s grief.


In some cases, relatives have never been officially informed about an execution, even though the law says the authorities must confirm this three days after sentence has been carried out.


Unofficial figures suggest that more than 200 death sentences are carried out every year in Uzbekistan – double the figure given by President Karimov in a speech last year.


Zamir Ahmedov is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent in Uzbekistan.