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Weekly news wrap

This week in Central Asia the Uzbek media reported that over 30,000 people, of whom 9,900 were women, were living with HIV/AIDS in Uzbekistan as World AIDS Day was commemorated on Wednesday.

In Tajikistan, the number of HIV-positive people may be around 4,000, the Tajik Asia-Plus news agency reported on Thursday, citing William Paton, UN resident coordinator in the country. "As far as Tajikistan is concerned, experts estimate that the number of those infected has so far reached up to 4,000 against 317 registered cases in official statistics," Paton said.

Staying in Tajikistan, the country's lower house of parliament introduced the life sentence penalty into the country's criminal code, the AFP reported on Tuesday. Since April, when Tajikistan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, the Central Asian state's harshest punishment was 25 years in jail, used for those convicted of premeditated murder, rape, terrorist acts, biocide or genocide.

"The life sentence was introduced because some crimes are too serious and too dangerous for the [existing] maximum penalty [that Tajikistan had]," lawmaker Abdumanon Khalikov said. Life terms are not expected to be applied to women, children and men over 63 years of age.

In Kazakhstan, two explosions on Sunday shook the offices of the party of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the Kazakh financial capital, Almaty, the AFP reported. The blasts occurred a few minutes apart at the headquarters of the Otan (Fatherland) party in the city's main shopping area, the report said. A 22-year-old man passing by was injured in the explosions, the Russian Interfax news agency said.

The state quota for the return of ethnic Kazakhs to Kazakhstan would be increased to 15,000 families in 2005-2007, Zhazbek Abdiyev, head of the migration committee at the Kazakh Labour and Social Security Ministry, said on Tuesday. He added that the increase of 5,000 families a year resulted from the government's plans to increase the population of Kazakhstan to 20 million by 2015. Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest country, has a population of 15 million, with a territory slightly smaller than of India's.

More than 59,000 families or 300,000 people have returned to Kazakhstan over the past 12 years under the national oralman (returnee) programme. Most of the oralman families came from Mongolia, Turkey, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov said on Thursday he agreed with his critics that executions should stop, but he gave no timeframe, the AP reported. Uzbekistan and Belarus are the only two ex-Soviet states still carrying out the death sentence. "I want to tell you absolutely honestly that my personal opinion is that we must stop pronouncing death sentences," Karimov said.

In recent years, the Uzbek strongman president has not questioned the need to abolish the death penalty, citing opinion polls showing more than 90 percent of the population favoured executions. According to Karimov, this year alone Uzbek courts had pronounced between 50 and 60 death sentences, while eight years ago more than 100 people were sentenced to death each year. Local human rights activists dispute Karimov's figures, saying the actual numbers are much higher.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported on Thursday that it had deployed a limited election observation mission for the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan on 26 December 2004. The mission from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) headed by Ambassador Lubomir Kopaj from Slovakia will include 21 election experts and long-term observers.

None of the ex-Soviet republic's previous elections has been internationally recognised as free and fair. Seats in the Central Asian nation's rubber-stamp parliament will be contested only by five pro-government parties. Karimov outlawed the main opposition parties in the early 1990s and none of them are officially recognised.

In Kyrgyzstan, OSCE's top envoy to Central Asia, Martti Ahtisaari, urged the Kyrgyz government on Tuesday to hold free and fair elections. Ahtisaari also expressed hope that next year's parliamentary and presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan would be better than the ones in 2000, which were strongly criticised. Ahtisaari also urged Bishkek to extend a moratorium on the death penalty that ends in December. Kyrgyzstan has had a moratorium on the death penalty since 1998.

Going to Turkmenistan, the country's parliament ratified a friendship agreement with Uzbekistan on Saturday, moving to improve ties strained in 2002 when Turkmen officials accused the neighbouring country of involvement in an alleged plot to assassinate their president. Parliament ratified the friendship declaration signed last week by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and his Uzbek counterpart Karimov, the state media reported.

The two authoritarian states started demarcation of their border on Wednesday. The sides agreed on borders in 2000, but couldn't proceed with further actions due to strained relations.

Amnesty International (AI), on Monday called on Turkmenistan to free an outspoken critic of President Niyazov from a psychiatric hospital. Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev, a 63-year-old community leader from the west of the most reclusive Central Asian nation, was forcibly hospitalised on 13 February after seeking permission to hold a demonstration next week, ahead of Niyazov's 64th birthday, on 19 February, the international rights watchdog said.

"AI regards (him) as a prisoner of conscience and urges his immediate and unconditional release," the group said in a statement. A law passed last year in the country making it a crime punishable by life imprisonment to "sow doubt about presidential policy" or to "provoke discord between the state and the people."

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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