Uzbek Death-Penalty Changes Distract Attention from Rights Abuses
Aiming to improve its international image, the Uzbek government has introduced legislation that restricts the number of criminal offenses carrying the death penalty. However, observers say the legislative changes have not had any apparent effect on curbing systemic human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.
The new death penalty law took effect in late October, cutting the number of capital offenses from eight to four. Crimes connected with genocide, terrorism, premeditated and aggravated murder, and acts of aggression against the state still carry the death penalty.
In addition to reducing the number of capital offenses, the Uzbek government abolished the practice of confiscating the property of those convicted under the state penal code, unless it was obtained directly as a result of criminal act.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has gone on record as desiring to abolish the death penalty altogether. "My sacred goal is to have no death penalty in our country and society, but I think that time has not come yet," the president said in an August 29 parliamentary speech.
But human rights organizations question Karimov's sincerity on capital punishment and other legislative changes. "Uzbekistan was on its way to becoming a pariah," said one Tashkent-based legal reform advocate. "Our authorities had to send out a message that things were improving, both to people here and abroad, and the message was that they decided to ease up on capital punishment."
The death penalty in Uzbekistan has been the subject of much international scrutiny, in part because of the secrecy connected with its implementation. Amnesty International assailed the Uzbek government in an October 11 press release for, among other things, treating execution statistics as a state secret.
Karimov's government has conducted a ruthless crackdown on freedom of speech and of religious expression in recent years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. The categories of crimes carrying the death penalty remain sufficiently broad that they can still be employed to stifle political and religious dissent, human rights observers say. Some Uzbek activists in detention or in prison, according to Human Rights Watch, are accused of terrorism-related crimes.
The state still requires all civic, religious and political groups to obtain official registration. Associations without government approval are regarded as criminal operations. For example, the state has not registered the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, leaving its members vulnerable to long prison terms.
In October, the OSCE's chairman, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, urged Uzbekistan to continue reforming its judicial system by introducing "punishments other than the death penalty." Because the state treats executions as a state secret -- an inheritance from the Soviet era - there are no reliable statistics on executions. In his August 29 speech, Karimov defended his stated figure of 100 annual executions as "less than half" the level of capital punishments the state carried out in 1990.
Meanwhile, The US State Department has cited Uzbekistan for "state hostility toward minority or non-approved religions" in its annual report on religious freedom, which became available on October 26.
The report is critical of Uzbekistan's strict registration requirements, mass detention of Islamic believers, and inhumane prison conditions. The report also documents cases of prisoners dying in police custody, or under suspicious circumstances in prison. It says nothing, however, about the implementation of the death penalty.
Since the start of the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, which has seen the United States and Uzbekistan engaged in close military cooperation, US diplomats have been restrained in their comments about Tashkent's human rights practices. State Department spokesman Rick Boucher did not mention Uzbekistan when he summarized the report in the State Department's October 26 press briefing. The report also did not designate Uzbekistan as one of the "Countries of Particular Concern" even though it stated that "abuses against many devout Muslims for their religious beliefs" persist.
But human rights groups are maintaining pressure on Karimov's government. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have vocally called for sweeping reform in the country. In addition, the US Senate is reportedly considering legislation that would link American aid to Uzbekistan to Tashkent's human rights practices.
This story contains reporting by Rafael Puzant.