Tamara Chikunova: No more killing in the name of the law
Tamara Chikunova, founder of the Uzbek organization “Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture” is travelling around different countries to inform people about the horrors of the authoritarian system in Uzbekistan and about lawlessness in the law enforcement agencies.
A lawyer and economist, Tamara Chikunova began her struggle against the death penalty after her only son was executed on 10 June 2000. Her efforts have finally brought success: since 1 January 2008 there have been no executions and the death penalty has been abolished.
She has received a number of international awards for her tireless and vital work. She spoke to Oksana Synytska from the Institute for Mass Information.
What is the purpose of your visit to Ukraine?
Tamara Chikunova I want to pass on to young people and society important things about human rights, about their dignity, the value and right to life. This is very important regardless of whether a country has the death penalty or not. The death penalty is the extreme form of denial of human rights. It is the deliberate and cold-blooded killing of a person by the State in the name of justice. There is no justification for torture and ill-treatment, and there cannot be. Like torture, the death penalty constitutes extreme physical and psychological violence against a person.
Asked about her trip to Lviv, she explained that this was directly linked with the plan to suggest that Mayor Sadovy includes Lviv in the international action: “Cities for life”, which is marked on 30 November by illuminating architectural monuments and accompanied by measures calling for the abolition of the death penalty throughout the world. She says that Mr Sadovy honoured them with his attention, listened attentively and has indicated that the city will take part if the Administration gives its permission.
How did your human rights work begin?
On 10 July 2000 in Tashkent my only son Dmitry Chikunov was executed. He had been unlawfully convicted and was very quickly executed after the sentence, seven months later. I would like to say that in Uzbekistan at that time according to the law those on death row and their relatives didn’t have the right to know the execution date. They weren’t able to see their relative before the execution. And to this day nobody has the right to know where those who were executed in Uzbekistan are buried.
It was through the death of my only son that I set out to fight for the abolition of this terrible, this brutal crime by the State in the name of justice. In 2000 I founded the organization “Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture” which carries out constant monitoring of human rights violations and regularly sends information to international human rights structures: to the UN, Amnesty International, the OSCE, Human Rights Watch and other organizations. We worked to get the death penalty abolished in Uzbekistan for more than eight years. I’m glad to be able to say that since 1 January 2000 it has been totally abolished.
I can’t say that this road towards the abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan was accompanied by orchestra and upbeat marches: it was a path to test us, we needed to make the government, the State, society understand the horror of the death penalty.
There will be no more killings in the name of the law. Furthermore, I can say that a lot was achieved from the community. The international community was mobilized and it called on Uzbekistan to abolish the death penalty. We carried out many joint actions calling for this. Now the law envisages not only life imprisonment, but also as an alternative a fixed sentence of 25 years. That is, those who instead of the death penalty get life, have a chance of being released and bringing benefit to society. At the time the death penalty was abolished, there were more than 50 men on death row. The Supreme Court reconsidered all their sentences.
In Ukraine nobody has been executed for many years, however torture in prison and also during the criminal investigation remains widespread. What is the situation like with that in Uzbekistan?
Torture in prisons is generally a worldwide evil and there is presently a fight against it in many countries. In Uzbek criminal legislation Article 235 prohibits the use of torture in prisons. However we are fighting for the broadening of this article where torture has led to a person’s death, so that the law enforcement officers answer for it as for deliberate murder. As we see, for that killing they give police officers 8-15 years, whereas the norms of the criminal law give 25 years or life, and when it’s a police officer, the maximum is 15 years. In the main they get away with mild norms.
Unfortunately I don’t know what the articles are like in Ukraine punishing police officers for torture. There’s a huge problem in that it’s very difficult to prove that torture and violence were applied. And we are not only dealing with physical violence but also cases where people are morally and physically tormented, their psyche broken. You can turn a healthy, normal and dignified person into a cabbage. This can be seen in torture when they denigrate human dignity so much that a person can lose their mind, can kill themselves. This force over a person is unacceptable. It is important to adopt mechanisms to bring such people to answer.
Not so long ago, the Ukrainian media reported that 80% of Ukrainians are for the return of the death penalty. How would you assess such figures?
That percentage says that we’ve relaxed too soon. In Ukraine you need to carry out widespread explanatory work about how people die during investigations, how they’re driven to death in prisons, what the right to life is. When we pronounce sentence, apply the death penalty, we forget that life is a priceless gift bestowed on us by God. And people do not have the right to decide who is to live, and who to die. The executioner is always much worse than the person who committed the crime.
How wide is the coverage of this subject in the Uzbek media and how would you assess the level of freedom of expression in your country?
State officials prefer to conceal executions and the newspapers only whisper of them. Our level of freedom of speech is very low. I fully stand by these words since many of our journalists have been forced to emigrate because they’re subjected to pressure from the authorities and everything is subjected to strict censorship. Recently our journalist and documentary film director Ahmedova was convicted and sentenced for showing the life of simple people of Uzbekistan in her film. The film was condemned by the authorities and she faced criminal charges. This shows how strict censorship is and how little freedom of expression there is.
The interviewer was Oksana Synytska, IMI