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Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Wednesday ordered a moratorium on capital punishment, thereby aiming "to further humanise the state criminal policy", according to Igor Rogov, the deputy chief of presidential staff. Speaking on Thursday, he added that henceforth, courts in Kazakhstan be empowered to sentence those convicted of grave crimes to life imprisonment, but not death. The moratorium was to take effect on Friday, he said.

Rogov went on to note, however, that the moratorium on capital punishment was "open-ended", assering that most Kazakhs still backed the death penalty, which might therefore be reinstated if need be.

Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have long ago placed a moratorium on capital punishment, while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan still practise Soviet-style executions by firing squad.

The police from border regions of northern Kazakhstan and Russia's southern Chelyabinsk Province have discussed ways of jointly combating drug trafficking and cattle theft, the most common types of crime in the area, according to a media source. It noted that the border between the two states remained ill-defined for rural residents, and even police officers themselves sometimes did not know where it was sited. Kazakhstan and Russia share a border of about 4,500 km.

Kazakh opposition activists would be vying for parliamentary seats in the forthcoming elections, the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported on Thursday. "Supporters of the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan [RPPK], an unregistered opposition organisation, would participate in the forthcoming autumn [2004] parliamentary elections as independent candidates or nominees from other public organisations," the report said. The RPPK was formed in 1998 and was led by former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin.

In Tajikistan, it was reported on Sunday that Tajik labour migrants working in Russia often brought back sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. "If sexually transmitted diseases continue to spread at such a high rate, the country will make a big leap in its AIDS cases," a health official reportedly said. Officially, of Tajikistan's population of 6.3 million, only 119 are HIV-positive, but some experts estimate the real number to be 20 times as high. According to some estimates, migrant workers last year brought home between US $200 million and $230 million, while the 2002 national budget totalled $206 million.

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie met President Emomali Rahmonov on Sunday on her two-day visit to Tajikistan, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported. The two discussed "regional security, the military and political situation in Afghanistan in the context of elections to the Loya Jirga, and the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking", the report said, adding that they had agreed "to hold joint Tajik-French military exercises at a Tajik military range next year". France has more than 100 soldiers based at Dushanbe airport to support the operations of the French contingent serving with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)in neighbouring Afghanistan.

A Tajik woman had been sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment for human trafficking, Tajik media said on Wednesday. Mukhtor Isoyev, a judge of the Dushanbe city court, was quoted as saying that Sabohat Shukurova, a resident of Dushanbe, had been found guilty of trafficking in women. Promising women to take them to Russia, Shukurova instead took them to Dubai via the northern Tajik town of Khujand and the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh, and force them into prostitution, the report said.

The experience of holding multiparty parliamentary elections in Tajikistan had "revealed many shortcomings in the country's existing legislation", Vladimir Sotirov, the UN secretary-general's envoy and head of the United Nations Tajikistan Office of Peace-building [UNTOP], reportedly said on Thursday. He went on to say that for a state which had experienced severe conflict during the 1992-97 civil war, the successful settlement of problems affecting the further strengthening of pluralism and holding of multiparty elections was of considerably more importance than in other countries.

The United States on Wednesday issued a new warning that terrorists might be plotting attacks on targets in Uzbekistan. "The US government has received information that terrorists may be planning attacks against hotels in Uzbekistan frequented by Westerners, and against foreign embassies and other organisations, facilities, and institutions associated with or representing foreign interests," the US State Department said, noting that supporters of extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al-Qaeda, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement continued to remain active in the region.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Uzbekistan on Thursday on a three-day visit. He met President Islam Karimov and other top officials on Friday, seeking to improve bilateral relations, which soured in the mid-1990s when exiled Uzbek opposition leaders found refuge in Turkey. During the visit, a bilateral agreement to cooperate in the international fight against terrorism was expected to be signed, the Uzbek foreign ministry said. Turkey, which has deep historical and linguistic ties with Central Asia, has established a strong business presence in the region since Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991.

The Kyrgyz foreign ministry on Monday condemned an incident in which security officials from neighbouring Uzbekistan raided Kyrgyz territory in an attempt to seize a Kyrgyz citizen. "Such illegal acts contravene the spirit and principles" of a friendship agreement between the two republics, the foreign ministry said in a statement. Seven Uzbek officials were involved in the unsuccessful bid to snatch Alymbek Batyraliyev from his home in the Kyrgyz section of the volatile Ferghana Valley, the statement said. Although the reason for the raid remains unclear, according to some sources, Uzbekistan may have been seeking an activist of the non-violent Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) Islamic organisation, which is banned throughout Central Asia.

Representatives of major Russian newspapers have complained that a decision by the Kyrgyz parliament to restrict the activities of foreign media during election campaigns unfairly targets them and would prevent legitimate news coverage. "From now on, Kyrgyz officials have a right to suppress any political publications in Russian newspapers and cut television programmes on Russian channels that have to do with political life in Kyrgyzstan," the offices of major Russian newspapers based in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, said in a statement on Thursday.

The Kyrgyz parliament earlier this week approved an amendment to the election code, whereby foreign media have been prohibited from selling political advertisements. The media will not henceforth be allowed to sell advertisements for a candidate, as this would amount to interference in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs, said Nina Mukhina, the head of information department of the Central Electoral Committee. However, she added that foreign media would not be prevented from covering the elections and campaigns. The next presidential and parliamentary elections here are scheduled for 2005.

Meanwhile, the US-based rights watchdog Freedom House (FH) said in its major annual survey, entitled Freedom in the World, issued on Thursday, that in the midst of global terrorism and international efforts to fight it, freedom and democracy had continued making overall progress worldwide in 2003. However, freedom was still lagging in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, FH said.

"The war on terrorism has led to repression in certain countries and regions, such as in Central Asia, where counter-terrorism is sometimes used to justify the stifling of dissent. But on balance, the world was continuing to move towards greater freedom and democracy," said FH Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. According to the survey, of the 49 countries rated "Not Free", eight, including Turkmenistan - the fewest in the survey's history - were given the lowest possible numerical ratings for political rights and civil liberties.

The US State Department on Thursday released its fifth annual report on international religious freedom. "I would point to states that favour a dominant religion and are hostile towards minority or non-approved religions, and examples here would include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Turkmenistan," said John Hanford, the US Ambassador-at-Large for international religious freedom, unveiling the report. "In this latter case, new, draconian legislation has effectively criminalised the religious activities of many Muslims, Christians and other faiths, and I'm speaking here of Turkmenistan."

According to the survey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are among totalitarian and authoritarian regimes defined by the high degree to which they sought to control thought and expression, especially dissent. "Such regimes tend to regard some or all religious groups as enemies of the state because of the religion's content, the fact that the very practice of religion threatens the dominant ideology (often by diverting the loyalties of adherents towards an authority beyond the state), the ethnic character of the religious group or groups, or a mixture of all three. When one or more of these elements is present, the result often is the suppression of religion by the regime," the report said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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