Mother of victim of miscarriage of justice: “Thanks God I didn't give in to the sense of revenge”
Having lost her only son, who was executed innocent, she became the mother of all death row prisoners in Uzbekistan. Having achieved the abolition of the death penalty in the country, she is fighting for its abolition primarily in Belarus. Tamara Chikunova is a guest of honor of the Belarusian Week Against the Death Penalty and one of the heroines of the photo project "Capital Punishment", which tells the story of a mother of death row convict.
In the interview with the Human Rights Centre "Viasna" Tamara Chikunova told how it is to be the "mother of a killer", why she refused to avenge the murder of her only son and how many convicts survived thanks to the work of her organization.
- Tamara, after the life tragedy You experienced, where did you find the strength for the work to which you have devoted the following years - the abolition of the death penalty not only in your own, but also in other countries?
- This is the last letter written by my son before being shot. It isas a testament so that I could live and remember. My son told his cellmate that if I did not manage to save himself from the death penalty, he can also ask me for help and I would help him. It really happened so that this man was saved: in December 2001 the death verdict to him was abolished, as well as another convict in his case. That's why my son's testament became the impulse to live and counteract this brutal punishment.
- What was Your life like after the execution of Your son?
- I faced with the fact that after the execution of my son I remained in isolation. Many friends simply disappeared, only the closest ones were left. Relatives also stopped communicating with me because of the fear of such cruelty. I was left alone with my grief. I did not want to live on, because it was my only child. He was the hope of my life and it was killed. Why live? I was supported only by thewish of my son that I should live and remember.
I created an organization. At first, it consisted mainly of mothers of death row convicts. Among them there were women, whose children were convicted but went missing, since nobody reported whether they had been executed or no. These women were between heaven and earth. How could they live? They became social outcasts, nobody understood them and their grief. After all, they were mothers of murderers. I was also treated this way. When somebody wanted to insult me, they said "she is the mother of a murderer". Meanwhile, no one wanted to understand how it all happened,
why my only son was killed, why he was executed so quickly, why the trial was unjust, why there was no investigation into the facts of torture... The society just didn't care. They thought that the main thing was to “restore the justice”. Then, my son was acquitted of charges against him, the tortures and abuse against him were recognized, as well as the unjust nature of the trial and violation of his right to defense. Nevertheless, he was executed. The scary thing is that the death penalty is irreversible. However, I bear the cross of a murderer's mother in the eyes of society. I can not explain to anyone that I am in no way to blame, even if my son is a criminal. I do not separate my son who was executed despite being innocent, from the ones who were executed for crimes. I say that one can not kill justifying oneself by law. It's against human life. And we all share the responsibility for this. In a society where there is a criminal penalty of death, people should not be inert and quiet, because no one is insured from the death penalty. Everything must be done to prevent the use of this terrible punishment.
- What would You like to say to the mothers of death row convicts in Belarus?
- I want to say that I am with you. I understand your pain. I felt the negative attitude of the society to the mother of a death row convict myself. You must remember that you are the mothers. And you have every right to protect your children. You have also become victims of the terrible law on the death penalty. You - the victim. You are in no way to blame. The society is to blame for the fact that you have been robbed of the most precious thing – the lives of your children.
- Tamara, I have heard that the prisoners on death row, on whose cases You have worked, called Youtheir mother. Tell me how this work was carried out. Could You meet with them?
- I was in the basement where death row convicts are kept, in a meeting room, only once – when I had a meeting with my son. I didn't personally meet with the people who have been sentenced to death. They sent me letters, calling me their mother, because they believe that protection of the children is one of the first things a mother does. That's why our organization is called "Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture". Initially, of course, there came the mothers asking for help. However, there are also fathers and young volunteers. They did a lot, supporting us and monitoring the situation. I, the head of the organization, was the only person who was allowed making small monetary transfers to convicts. If the transfers were sent back – it meant that the convict has been executed. On finding about it, we struggled for getting the information about it. Like in Belarus, in Uzbekistan death executions are carried out secretly and the dates aren't publicized. This is a terrible torture – to be waiting for your own death everyday.
Of course, this work is not easy for me. I did not sleep for two years. I was torn by conflicting emotions: on the one hand - the desire to take revenge on the other - an understanding that, yielding to this desire, I will step on the path of crime. I had no rest. I wanted to give up when people were being shot one after another, because every time I had to go through the death penalty again. I had to speak with the relatives of the executed, and it was killing me. However, there was another thing. Those sentenced to death have entrusted me with their lives in the hope that I will be able to protect them, and to leave that job was to betray them. I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I did this. After such reflections, I proceeded with my work. I God that I was not overwhelmed bythe sense of revenge. I talked a lot with the priests, and they directed me to the right path. This is the path of forgiveness. I have forgiven to all those who killed my son and my compatriots, who often supported the terrible law on the death penalty. After this, my peaceful sleep returned, and my work became more successful. I try to be kind to people. And in this case, it was kindness to myself: not to revenge, but to live. Live, saving the lives of others.
- How many lives have you saved in Uzbekistan?
- There were 98 people sentenced to death, 58 remained on the death raw on the day of the juridical abolition of the death penalty – January 1, 2008. Later we achieved a substantial review of their cases. This was a global precedent, because there is a common practice, according to which those sentenced to death are either executed on the eve of the abolition of the death penalty, or automatically transferred to life imprisonment. The practice in Uzbekistan has proved that not all of them were that much guilty. Only 12 out of these 58 people got life sentences as a result of the review of their cases, 46 people received various times of imprisonment with the right to clemency, according to which they can be released in 15 years. Our important legal achievement is that in 2001-2008 death sentences to 28 people were replaced with different terms of imprisonment as a result of the revision of their cases. 22 of them have already been released, and I'm proud of these guys. None of them avenge to the society that sentenced them to death. All of them became good members of the society – working, marrying, raising children. And in each of them I see my son, regardless of age or nationality.
- -The law on the abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan, the drafting of which you took part in, is called one of the most progressive. What is notable in this law?
- There are three key points for former death row convicts in this law: access to medicine and the right to work and study. Another important opportunity – they are allowed to maintain contacts with their families – one phone call and one meeting a month. They can also receive parcels from relatives. If they earn enough money, the prisoners can also help to the families of the victims of their crimes. These are the basics of the law. Its goal is improvement and preparation for release, re-socialization.
- It took You and like-minded people eight years to achieve the abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan. How did you managed to do it?
- You know, there is a “Prayer” by Saint-Exupery which begins with the lines: "Lord, I don't ask for miracles, and not for a mirage, but for the strength of each day. Teach me the art of small steps ...”. This means to teach one the art of dialogue. For me the path of small steps started from the Community of Sant'Egidio, whom I met in 2002. And for more than 12 years, these Christians have been around me. They live in different countries, but their only purpose is the way to peace and creation. And the first of the objectives of this public organization is the abolition of the death penalty. They work in many countries where there is the death penalty. They were the initiators of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The coalition was founded on 13 May 2002 in Rome, in the office of the Community of Sant'Egidio. I had the honor to participate in this meeting and I am one of the first members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
Returning to the path of small steps, I want to say that the implementation of our task was difficult. There was no common understanding. You should also take into account that Uzbekistan is 90% Muslim country, and I am a woman, a Christian, Russian, Russian citizen. Not all human rights activists have supported me in the fight for the abolition of the death penalty. But sometimes very ordinary people helped with anything they could, being concerned with this issue. As a rule, they came to us together with the relatives of the death row convicts, and remained as volunteers. Their concern and participation helped us to win trials. Then, in 2005 we started conducting explanatory work with different social strata. We went to different audiences - to students, to veterans of the warin Afghanistan, etc. In our speeches we, referring to our personal experience, spoke about the cruelty which is encouraged by the society. After the discussions some people changed their mind and became advocates of the abolition of the death penalty. Even if there were two such people among one hundred – it is already a victory. That's why they have made this choice for themselves, and one day they will help their friends in making this choice as well, as they already have relevant information.
But it is clear that the abolition of the death penalty is the political will of the head of the state. No meetings and protests made the head of the state listen to us. A dialogue brought much better results. This is a long way, and our first step was the world action for the abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan, when journalists directly asked President Karimov about his attitude to the death penalty – as a person and as a president. He thought, and then replied, "As a man, I am against this form of punishment, but as President I'll tell you later". This was the first step in the dialogue. There will be no results until the opposing parties come to the table and start it step by step.