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

Uzbekistan: Death Penalty Debate Stifled

Government steps in at the last moment to halt international meeting on judicial killing.
By IWPR staff

Local and international human rights groups have criticised the Uzbek authorities for intervening to stop a conference on the death penalty last week, saying it casts doubt on their commitment to improving human rights.

The ban placed on the conference may have stifled debate inside Uzbekistan in the short term, but it leaves would-be participants more determined than ever to shed more light on the secrecy that surrounds death row in the country.

And the last-minute manner in which the government stepped in to halt the event has only increased the publicity about an issue on which it prefers to maintain silence.

The conference, organised by the non-government group Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture, was scheduled to take place on December 5 in the capital Tashkent, but at the last minute officials told the organisers that it would not be allowed.

“Unfortunately this is just another example in a long list of setbacks for fulfilling the human rights benchmarks set by the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] earlier this year,” said Rachel Denber, acting director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. At its annual meeting, held in Tashkent in May, the EBRD made continued support for Uzbekistan conditional on making a number of improvements on human rights.

The planned death penalty conference was sponsored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, the British Embassy and the US-funded Freedom House.

According to Anna Sunder-Plassmann, researcher on Central Asia for Amnesty International, the main aim was to start a “public discussion of the death penalty in Uzbekistan, and a civilised dialogue with the Uzbekistan government on this problem”.

But Uzbek officials were clearly in no mood for dialogue. Two days before the meeting was due to take place, the hotel chosen as the venue suddenly said that the room was no longer available.

“The hotel was given the choice of whether it wanted to continue operating in Uzbekistan, or hold a conference on the death penalty,” alleged Tamara Chikunova, who heads Mothers Against the Death Penalty.

The next day, the group was told by the government’s National Centre for Human Rights that a ban had been placed on the conference.

Renny Cushing, executive director of the US organisation Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, arrived in Tashkent only to be told the event was off. “I am disappointed,” he told IWPR. “The Uzbek state did not even allow public discussions on the death penalty, and I flew halfway around the world in order to say nothing.”

The foreign ministry told foreign diplomats that the meeting could not happen because Mothers Against the Death Penalty was not officially recognised as a non-government organisation. The group sought to register with the justice ministry last year but was turned down. One of the EBRD’s benchmark conditions is for civil society groups to be allowed to operate.

According to Chikunova, the question of registration – or the lack of it – was a side issue. “The Uzbek authorities had no political will to hold a dialogue on the death penalty in order to improve the human rights situation,” she said.

The application of the death penalty is surrounded in mystery in Uzbekistan – and would be a complete secret but for the efforts of activists like Chikunova.

Her group estimates that there are around 200 executions a year in Uzbekistan, mainly of young men convicted of murder. There are concerns that sentences are often unsafe as the trial process is flawed and confessions may be extracted under torture. Uzbek officials dismiss such charges.

Once sentence is passed and all appeals have failed, relatives are rarely if ever told when an execution is about to take place – even though this is a legal requirement. The body is not returned to relatives, and its place of burial is never revealed. And in some cases the families are not officially informed that their son, brother or husband is now dead.

“I deal with the problem of the death penalty in many countries around the world, but I have never seen such harsh rules as keeping the day of execution secret, not giving the corpse to the family, and not publicising the place of burial,” said Cushing.

While in Tashkent, Cushing met with people –including Chikunova herself – whose relatives have been executed or are still on death row. “It is legalised torture,” he claimed.

“Tamara Chikunova - whose son Dmitry was executed in 2000 - has not seen his corpse, and she doesn’t know if or how he was executed. She continues to suffer.”

The particular secrecy surrounding the death penalty issue provides one possible explanation why the Uzbek government was unwilling to let the discussion go ahead.

“The authorities are scared of openness, of questions that they may not be able to answer,” said Sunder-Plassman. “The conference could have made public a lot of things that the authorities do not want the community to know.”

At the same time, this may not be enough to explain why the government suddenly stepped in to block the conference when it had already become something of a media event, with participants already arriving in Tashkent. Planning for the meeting took place over several months, and officials had been invited to attend, so the authorities had plenty of time to act before matters reached a head.

The government would also have had good reasons to let the conference happen. It is under pressure from organisations like the EBRD to address the black marks on its record. If it had sent representatives to the meeting they could have dwelt on the progress the government has made – an otherwise highly critical report by Amnesty International last month noted that 11 death sentences have been commuted in the last three years, and that the number of capital offences has been reduced from 13 to four since 1994.

Although some observers note that the government is far more sensitive to events held in Tashkent than those held abroad, it would have been able to control any local television or radio coverage because of its tight hold on the media.

Analysts in Central Asia say that the somewhat heavy-handed way the whole affair has been handled indicates that, when finally faced with the choice of allowing a public debate on a tricky subject, or stopping it and getting a bad press, government officials opt for the latter.

Activists prevented from participating in the conference say they intended to continue campaigning. “I am leaving disappointed, but I am determined to fight to abolish the death penalty in Uzbekistan. We will conduct a campaign in the US – we have gained solidarity in Tashkent,” said Cushing.