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Belarus in Focus 2011

14 Nov

Horia-Victor Lefter, Le Taurillon (France)

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Death penalty: the social developments in favour of its abolition in Belarus

A region without death penalty...

Few remember that on October the 9th 1981, under the Presidency of François Mitterand, France has become one of the last States in Western Europe to abolish the death penalty by legislative means. Since then, thirty-seven other States from Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, have also abolished it in all circumstances.

Nevertheless, it is not the same case for Latvia and Kazakhstan. In these states, the death penalty still persists legally, as a punishment for war crimes. The situation has, however, changed recently. Because, on October the 13th, the Latvian Seima has adopted a decision to abolish the death penalty for war crimes, as well, since the 13th Protocol of the Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties was also ratified (BNN October 14th 2011).

Moreover, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan have introduced a moratorium, and have not proceeded to executions anymore. Thus, they have de facto become abolitionist countries. In 2009, just before the end of the moratorium, the Russian Constitutional Court decided to extend it until the 6th Protocol to the Convention of Human Rights would be ratified, hence bringing the death penalty for crimes committed in time of peace to an effective end. There still remain Chechnya and its jury trials instated on January 1st 2010 (The Moscow Times January 25th 2010).

Even if the Russian Federation or Latvia, of which the first is especially motivated to remain a member State of the Council of Europe, have succeeded in abolishing the death penalty or are about to do so, the death penalty is still used at their borders.

...Or almost.

Thus, even at the 30th anniversary of abolishing the death penalty in France, and the 9th celebration of the World Day against the death penalty, Belarus remains its bastion in the centre of Europe, with some four hundred executions since 1991.

Even if abolishing the death penalty can be “a thousand years’ journey”, as the United Kingdom ambassador in Minsk has summed up as she was discussing about the UK in an article published on the Viasna site (Spring 96), in Belarus the situation has remained unchanged since the country’s independence in 1991. Moreover, not only did the accession to power of Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1994 re-enforce the authorities’ opposition to abolish it, but also the results of the referendum on this topic, as 80,44% of the participants voted in favour of the death penalty. Still, even president Lukashenka also pardoned two inmates on death row between 2003 and 2005. These were some of the very few occasions when the Belarus authorities tackled the death penalty, contrary to the Western world, where they usually have the initiative for its abolishment.

For a few years, Belarus has entered a somewhat steady routine of two executions per year, which made authorities asses that their country is about to become a retentionist one. Only after the execution of Oleg Grishkovstov and Andrei Burduko in July, current year, another two persons will most probably be condemned to the capital punishment. The court has not yet taken a decision, as the law case will resume on November the 14th.

Besides, some scholars noticed that the number of executions and of crimes punished by death penalty is proportional to the degree of democracy or dictatorship in the countries still using the capital punishment ( October 8th 2011). These considerations do not, however, apply to Belarus, because, despite its average of two executions per year and the fact that the number of crimes thus punished is decreasing, no human rights organisation would admit that Belarus is a democracy.

Hence, the case of Dzimitry Kanavalau and Ulad Kavalyou can constitute an evidence in this sense. Charged with committing the last April 11th terrorist act in the Minsk subway, when fifteen people were killed and some other hundred wounded, they denounce being forced to confess deeds for which they consider themselves innocent (Ria Novosti September 19th 2011). Analysts confirmed that they were denied the right to be presumed innocent, as a number of Belarus officials have publicly declared they consider the two as terrorists (Belarus Digest September 17th 2011). But beyond the procedure’s lack of transparency (Radio Free Europe, September 15th 2011), this case law has also caused, if not only underlined, a social tendency to contest the capital punishment. Therefore, if no judicial system can be exempt from error, as the British ambassador underlined in her online article, the situation in Belarus is worsened “by the secret that surrounds the death penalty in this country” (Amnesty International France May 27th 2011).

Indeed, the conditions proper to death penalty in Belarus – from death row to the execution itself by firing squad – are constantly denounced by human rights organisations. Since these conditions are decreed State secret, they remain surrounded by mystery, and the death row inmates’ families are not only denied any visit, but also access to any piece of information related to the date of execution, as well as where the body is buried. In addition to this, the death row inmates only learn about the imminence of their execution on the last moment.

Besides the authorities’ refusal to cooperate with international organisations – as Belarus has twice proceeded with executions while the law cases were still pending in front of the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations (HRHF July 28th 2011) – the Belarusian public opinion in favour of capital punishment remains proportional to the weakening of citizens’ confidence towards public authorities and the courts of justice. According to the publicist Siarhei Dubavets, this particular law case is fully contributing to the change (Belarus Digest October 4th 2011). The lawyer of the Human Rights Centre Viasna, Valiantsin Stefanovich, adds that “with the judicial system which is now in Belarus, it is dangerous to have such form of punishment. Indeed, the presence of judicial error is very significant and likely.” (BHRH October 10th 2011). What is more, an OSCE report published on November 10th 2011, which resulted from case law monitoring between March and July 2011, “highlights the need for substantial justice reform” in Belarus (

Others ask for the law case to be postponed until the death penalty would be abolished (Belarus Digest September 17th 2011), because “what we’re saying is that a possible death penalty is absolutely inhumane – regardless of the cruelty of the crime”, according to an opponent to death penalty (Deutsche Welle September 15th 2011).   

But according to Brad Draker, Florida’s lawmaker, executing by firing squad is more human than by lethal injection (Global Post, October 13th 2011). It is another proof that those in favour of the abolition still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, it is reassuring that even in Belarus the society begins to be preoccupied by this capital question and heads to a positioning swing. Thus, on the occasion of the World Day against death penalty, a street action was organised in Minsk. The organisers were rather satisfied, especially because they have succeeded in debating about it with passersby (BHRH October the 10th 2011).

Finally, the European Union has once more joined the Council of Europe and condemned Belarus for maintaining the death penalty in its legal system. It has also called upon the Belarusian authorities to introduce a moratorium, as the rest of the Europe has not committed executions since 1997 (EU official statement October 10th 2011).

There is still the question of how many years and victims will it still take for the capital punishment to be abolished. The Constitutional Court has declared since 2004 that the two articles in the Criminal Code are incompatible with the Constitution, its decision being followed in 2005 by the Parliament’s vote in favour of an amendment proclaiming the temporary use of the death penalty. Thus, it is now up to President Lukashenka to keep his 2009 promise, and organise a campaign to raise awareness on the death penalty issue in Belarus society, in order to eventually be able to abolish it.         

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