An interview with Tamara Chikunova, who founded the Association “Mothers against the death penalty and torture.”
“Everything has a limit, except mercy.”
These are the words of Tamara Chikunova, an Uzbek woman who founded the Association, “Mothers against the death penalty and torture,” after her only son, 28-year-old Dmitry Chikunov, was executed on 10 July 2000. She travels the world telling her story. It is a story focussed on defending human rights and on humanising prison systems.
Her journey takes her to those countries that still apply the death penalty. Most recently she was in Belarus. Thanks to her tireless efforts, strongly supported by the Community of Sant’Egidio, the death penalty was abolished in her own country of Uzbekistan, on 1 January 2008. As a result, the lives of hundreds of people living on death row were saved.
This is Tamara’s story.
“We lived and worked in Tashkent until 17 April 1999, when three men in civilian clothes showed up at my son’s office and arrested him. I was there at the time.” Tamara says she knew immediately that something was wrong.
“I was told it was just a formality,” she adds, but from that day on, Dmitry never left prison. A few hours later they stopped Tamara too and questioned her for 12 hours. “They beat me because I kept asking about my son.” She next saw him six months later, by which time he had been tortured to the point that he was almost unrecognisable.
Tamara tells of how she listened to her son describe the torture and humiliation to which he was submitted. All because he refused to sign a confession, admitting to having committed a double murder of which he was being accused.
Tamara describes what happened: “He was brought to the scene of the crime, forced onto his knees, his hands tied behind his back, and a gun pointed at his head.” They ordered him to sign the confession or be shot. Dmitry refused again. “But then they made him listen to my own screams of despair and pain while they interrogated me.” That is when he finally gave in. “My son signed his death sentence to save me.”
The next time Tamara met her son was seven months later, when he was already on death row.
On 10 July 2000, in great secrecy, he was shot dead in Tashkent prison. Tamara has never stopped asking why, why him, and why so much cruelty? Forty days later, she received a letter written by Dmitry before he died: his last will and testament. “My dear mother, I ask your forgiveness if fate will not allow us to meet. Remember that I am not guilty. I have not killed anyone. I prefer to die, but I will not let anyone hurt you. I love you. You are the only one I have loved in my life. Please remember me.”
No one can describe the pain of a mother reading these words. Tamara suffered from insomnia for over two years. After which, she decided she had to react. She had to stop others being senselessly killed by the cruel and inhuman system of the death penalty. “In too many parts of the world it is still seen as a measure to reduce violent crimes,” she says. “This way, though, the condemned person becomes the victim of a social problem, hostage to a crime committed in the name of the law.” According to Tamara, the death penalty is simply society taking revenge.
Her aim to keep alive the memory of Dmitry’s sacrifice transformed her pain into concrete testimony. Which is why she began her Association, which is supported by the Friends of the Community of St. Egidio.
Together with members of the Association, Tamara monitors trials, advises the relatives of prisoners on possible actions they can take, and helps them prepare letters and appeals. “I tell the women who go to death row to visit their children, their husbands, their brothers: Don’t cry, give them the strength to fight and move on. Yours is a battle for life. And never speak of vengeance.”
The lives saved
On 1 January 2008, Uzbekistan abolished the death penalty. In that year it became the 134th country in the world to do so, the third in former Soviet Central Asia, after Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Tamara continues to cross geographical borders, telling her own story and the story of those who survived.
Among the lives she managed to save was that of Evgeny Gugnin: “For him the sentence had already been passed,” she says. “He was baptised while he was on death row and said that, if he ever came out of that hell, he wanted to become a priest.” Evgeny was pardoned and released in 2011. Today he is a student at the seminary in Tashkent.
Tamara collects her stories in a folder that contains pictures and notes. It also contains a large photograph of her beloved son, and a piece of paper that reads: “Chikunov Dmitry, 28 years old, Russian citizen, Christian, valueless to society, cannot be rehabilitated in prison. For the crimes committed, he is sentenced to death by shooting.”
In March 2005, five years after his execution, Dmitry’s case was reopened. His trial, like so many others, was declared to have been unfair, and his innocence recognised. “The prison door was too wide when he entered,” muses Tamara, “but far too narrow when he tried to leave.”
With thanks to Vatican News and Davide Dionisi, where this article originally appeared.