Tajikistan “talks the talk” on the death penalty

Tajikistan has had some important dates for its diary since it supported the US-led coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan at the end of 2001.

In March President Rakhmonov went to Brussels to discuss a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with the European Commission and met NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson before stopping over in Berlin. Days before, Deputy UN Human Rights Commissioner Bertrand Ramcharan came to Dushanbe for ministerial talks. His visit followed on the heels of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, who put Tajikistan in his tour of Central Asia in October.

Tajikistan is the poorest state in Central Asia, and international statements about it since the Afghan war have been notable for their urgency. In 2002 the World Bank described its need for stable development and a decrease in poverty as essential for people in the whole region. Water is a major problem for Tajikistan, which since 1992 was hit in quick succession by civil war, years of drought and periodic flooding. In 2002 the World Bank gave $17 million towards repairing a reservoir and water purification plant for Dushanbe. In 2003 the European Commission advanced $70 million for reconstructing hydroelectric power stations in the north and south of the country. Irrigation projects have also received funding from the Islamic Bank and the Asia Development Bank. The European Commission and the World Bank announced plans to open offices in Dushanbe.

Tajikistan’s new status has brought it bumping up against the international community in ways it probably did not foresee. One sticking point has been human rights, and particularly Tajikistan’s use of the death penalty. Without progress on this front European agencies have said they might take their money elsewhere. This was the message of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in its 2002 annual report. The signs are that Tajikistan has registered this message.

Per head of its population, Tajikistan executes more people than any other member of the OSCE, except the United States of America. Since 2001 it has sentenced more than 130 people to death, including 11 of President Rakhmonov’s civil war opponents at one trial early this year. International uneasiness at these figures has been voiced many times. After exchanging courtesies with the King of Belgium in Brussels, President Rakhmonov found himself urged directly by the President of the European Parliament Pat Cox to halt executions.

President Rakhmonov was so shaken by his reception in Brussels, according to sources in Dushanbe, that he immediately instructed his Clemency Commission to pardon more prisoners on death row, to take the heat off future visits abroad. At least 14 prisoners have had their death sentences reduced in the past year, through a mixture of pardons and commutations. Previous yearly averages were just two or three.

Since President Rakhmonov got back from abroad, the media have also made much of a new Criminal Code that is under discussion. It would reduce the number of capital crimes from 15 to 5, and exempt all women from the death penalty, as well as men over 65 and under 18 years of age. If these reports are true, the net effect of the changes could nevertheless be very slight. Most prisoners on death row have been convicted of murder, or a very few other crimes like banditry and armed robbery. Very rarely have they been women, or men of the age groups being considered for exemption.

So long as statistics and cases involving the death penalty remain a state secret, the changes President Rakhmonov seems ready to consider involve some play with mirrors. There is no sign yet of a change in the official secrets law, according to lawyers in the field.

Like all UN members Tajikistan has said it will abolish the death penalty over time. It is a party to the UN’s Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to the surprise of some local human rights lawyers, it has also recognised the right of people to take grievances to the UN Human Rights Committee. Lawyers representing death row prisoners have increasingly done so, usually claiming their clients were deprived of a fair trial and tortured. Tajikistan’s response has been a source of great friction with the UN. It has shot four of the prisoners while their case notes were before the committee, despite UN requests for a stay of execution in each case.

The latest occasion was in June 2002 and involved two brothers, Dovud and Sherali Nazriev, who were executed in Qurgantoppa prison while the UN human rights committee was weighing up if they had had a fair trial. It is hard to overstate the reaction of the international agencies. The European Union threatened to withdraw its support unless Tajikistan was willing to carry out ‘genuine reforms’. The UN deplored Tajikistan’s total disregard for UN procedures.

Whether Tajikistan deliberately defied the UN, or whether a message simply got lost in transmission is not clear, but on his visit UN Deputy Human Rights Commissioner Bertrand Ramcharan wanted assurances that it would not happen again. An inter-departmental government commission has been given the task of making sure it does not. It is chaired by the Prime Minister and co-ordinates fulfilment of Tajikistan’s obligations under human rights treaties. These will include in future the need to respect requests from the UN Human Rights Committee. The commission was actually in existence at the time the Nazriev brothers were shot, so how effective it will be remains to be seen. Nine complaints from Tajikistan are currently with the UN Human Rights Committee and so there may not be long to wait.

Marjorie Farquharson