Belarus: Capital punishment’s last stand in Europe

Article copied from Belarus Digest. Very interesting to get some perspective on the last remaining European nation to cling to capital punishment. Belarus flies in the face of European law, and is refused membership of the EU or Council of Europe because of its stance. As with many of the retentionist nations, this status is characterised by a lack of transparency. The first step being addressed by Human Rights organisations is to push for more information on the processes and statistics around executions, so that we can have a clearer idea of what we are working with. If such nations are proud of their record on the death penalty and human rights then they should have nothing to fear or hide from the rest of the world.

Capital Punishment in Belarus

Map showing Belarus in Europe

Belarus, the last retentionist nation in Europe

Last week Belarusians Andrey Zhuk and Vasil Yuzepchuk were secretly executed in the Minsk Detention Center No. 1. They were informed of the execution only minutes before they were shot. Their families were not notified that the execution would take place, given the bodies after the execution, or told where the executied were buried. Having circumnavigated the globe by means of the foreign media, the news of the executions has still not been confirmed by the Belarusian authorities. The official notification of the punishment will probably take months.

Secrecy a-la Felix Dzerzhinsky is how the capital punishment is routinely carried out in Minsk, a city in the heart of Europe (dis?)graced with a 10.5-foot-tall statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police. Belarus is the only European country that still carries out the capital punishment. In the 21st century even Russia observes moratorium on the death penalty.

Capital punishment is prescribed “for especially grave crimes and only in accordance with the verdict of a court of law,” according to Article 24 of the Belarusian Constitution. The “grave crimes” include treason, conspiracy to seize state power, sabotage, and murder of a police officer. With a population of approximately ten million, Belarus has executed about 400 people since 1991, according to Amnesty International’s estimate.

Last week the heads of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly have condemned the execution pointing out that “the UN Human Rights Committee was still considering individual applications” on Zhuk’s and Yuzepchuk’s cases. They have yet again “called on the Belarusian government to suspend the enforcement of the penalty.”

Responding to criticism in the past, Minsk used to call capital punishment an internal affair. It would also bring up the 1996 referendum, in which the Belarusians people voted against abolishing the death penalty (not in the least because the second best alternative was a mere 15-year-long prison sentence).

Retaining the death penalty has kept Belarus out of the Council of Europe, and by carrying out executions in secrecy Belarus has been violating its commitments as a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Revoking or imposing a moratorium on capital punishment – or at least making the information about the executions public – could be Minsk’s small but important step toward Europe. However, the country has not matured enough to belong to the European institutions founded on the respect for human rights, the rule of law, and democratic development.

Belarus refuses to revise its stance on capital punishment or even make executions more humane. The authorities ignore valid international criticisms that the Belarusian justice system does not accord with international standards for fair trial, prevent the use of torture (Yuzepchuk’s lawyer contended the defendant was beaten into confessing), or grant the convicted right to a public hearing.

Why are the Belarusian authorities insisting on maintaining the Soviet-like secrecy about the executions? Perhaps because had the Belarusian people aware of the true number of people sentenced to death, the domestic debate on the issue of capital punishment would have been much more energetic and constructive.  

(with thanks to Susanne Cardona of www.gcadp.org, the German Coalition Against the Death Penalty)

Say No to the Death Penalty! Day two in Geneva – afternoon plenary session

A daily blog from the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, Geneva, Switzerland

OK – this is a long post – it was a long session!

International and Regional Organizations: commitments to abolition of the death penalty

The afternoon session at the Centre International des Congrès de Genève was a large-scale plenary session with a series of panels. The purpose was to give a ‘state of the world’ overview of where we are at, globally speaking, with the death penalty, and what instruments are at our disposal with regards to both opportunities and challenges/obstacles. This post does get rather long-winded – but please take a moment to read through as there were some very revealing anecdotes and useful points of view given.

First up were representatives from major civil bodies: the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. 

Examples of Instruments at Europe’s disposal

  • Instruments available for Human Rights within Europe include money for funding  – some £8 million is set aside annually for the management of around 16 abolitionist projects around the world.
  • Specific sanctions: internal EU rules prohibit the trade in tools of execution and torture: gallows, guillotines, automatic drug injection systems such as those used in the lethal injection procedure, for example.
  • The Council of Europe has added articles to European Law aimed at human rights and capital punishment is a priority. The Russian Federation is the only state in the Council of Europe not to have adopted this but it has at least set up a moratorium, and no executions have occurred since 1997. Russia is now committed to a path leading to eventual abolition.
  • Additionally, protocol 13 of the Treaty of the Council of Europe has also now been ratified prohibiting executions in wartime.

The Shame of Europe

Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe – it would not sign to the requirements and so was kicked out. It is the sole European state to retain the death penalty.

Staying on-message in Europe

Other things that have been done: lobbying; the Council of Europe organized an international Day against the death Penalty. There is a consciousness that in spite of progress in Europe, the death penalty is still a popular and emotive subject (and potential vote-winner). States require constant persuasion that it is wrong, doesn’t work, and should remain abolished. This, the panellists acknowledged, is a constant struggle.

Observation and intervention in non-member states.

The Council of Europe has a role to intervene in individual cases in the USA and Japan to argue for stays and/or clemency

Next, panellists were asked about current obstacles to abolition. The following were notes I took on the responses

  • Russia and South Africa demonstrate how quickly change can happen. Just a few years ago they both maintained that the death penalty was ‘very popular’ domestically and said they had the high crime rates to warrant it (!.) Today, each of them have either abolished or committed to abolish the death penalty.
  • Anecdotally, Ireland recently hosted a re-introduction debate; which was ended with immediate effect when they realised they would have to leave the European Union. So – international law works.
  • A later panellist told a similar story about a recent visit to Albania, where a discussion about ending culture of blood feuds descended into a positing that re-introducing the death penalty would solve it (because family members would not have to seek vengeance if the state did it for them when a loved one was murdered). Reminding Albania that this would mean having to leave the EU and Council of Europe put a swift end to the argument.
  • This niggling to reinstate the death penalty is a common theme. Individuals respond to heinous crimes by saying we need to bring back the death penalty. This is something which needs to be addressed across Europe at the popular level. The arguments are clear:
    • The death penalty is NOT a deterrent
    • All sorts of practices which once were considered acceptable and normal are today inconceivable in modern culture and for decent people: slavery; restricted franchise for women…
    • DNA advances mean that proof of innocence is increasingly being shown for the wrongfully condemned. Laws of averages imply that this is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider how many wrongfully convicted inmates are still on death rows or worse, have been executed.
  • This popular sentiment obstacle could be overcome in part by creating allies for the cause amongst the business world: corporate social responsibility could include refusal to invest in countries or states where the death penalty exists.

Note – nobody on the panel mentioned educating the young; this however, did come up more than once in the evening session hosted by Journey of Hope  , campaigning organisation run by families of victims, and Joaquim José Martinez , an exoneree (next post).

Human Dignity and the Right to Life

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture gave an interesting presentation summarising his recent report to the UN on the right to human dignity.  This right is written all across International Law and Codes, and includes treatment of slavery, torture, cruel and inhumane punishment. He made the point that in 1950, only 8 countries had abolished for all crimes, and only 11 more for ‘ordinary crimes’.  At that time, corporal punishment was also practised. Today, corporal punishment is widely considered CIDP (Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Punishment).  So our understanding of what constitutes degrading punishment has evolved.

Today, 138 countries (two-thirds of all states) have abolished the death penalty. Some states continue to separate CIDP from the ‘right to life’ element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its flavours in constitutional law. e.g. The USA – they do not condone CIDP and yet they do not recognise the right to life. This ‘separate’ interpretation is no longer compelling though – by extension, if every other form of physically injurious punishment is degrading, how can capital punishment not also be cruel?

Nowak believes the UN needs a fresh look at the relationship between human dignity and the right to life to reinforce the connection.

The OSCE (Organisation for Security and C… Of Europe)

This body includes ALL European states and the USA. Of this group, only the USA and Belarus are retentionist. There is no OSCE ‘commitment’ against the death penalty as this requires a consensus – and the USA and Belarus will not agree. But, states have committed to some things, such as making information public. So – the OSCE is able to publish the facts and this increases pressure on the non-conformists to some degree. They are also subject to peer ridicule: the matter of the death penalty is raised at weekly meetings with these states – again this increases pressure on them from outside to abolish.

African nations – summary of approach

First off, it was noted that African nations do comment that the USA still carries out the death penalty, while they are all being asked to sign moratoria – and this sends out an inconsistent signal.

The context in Africa is one of believing that “we cannot afford to keep incorrigible, dangerous individuals in society” so we need to kill them.

The world is divided between retentionists and abolitionists. In Africa this division is serious: culture, history, colonialism have all taken their toll in creating strong pro-death-penalty views. On the other hand, human rights organisations have been able to make some headway putting the opposite case. Efforts across the African nations are focussed on two areas:

  1. How do we disentrench capital punishment from penal codes?
  2. Attempting to embed the ‘right to life’ in national constitutions.

Across the Arab-African world, the only nation to have abolished the death penalty is the smallest – Djibouti. It can’t help but be noticed that most countries across the entire Arab and African region which have the death penalty are Muslim. Islam plays a key role here. Despite many discussions with Sharia Islamists about the right to life, they still promote the death penalty for

  1. Murder
  2. Apostasy (rejection of the Muslim faith)
  3. Adultery

Tales from Asia and the Middle East

Philip Alston of the UN Human Rights Council admits he gets nowhere with the Middle East. In Iran, persistent execution of juveniles is unquestionably against international law. They have no compunction whatsoever about this in Iran. It’s the same in Saudi Arabia. Neither country responds to UN HR Council correspondence.

[Note there was no opportunity ( or time) to ask questions during the course of the afternoon panel. I would have liked to know whether the UN could recommend or enforce further economic sanctions against these countries to force them to talk about Human Rights.]

In the Philippines, the death penalty has been abolished. In effect this is because the Philippines is a great exporter of labour, and they were finding that a lot of its migrant workers were being executed with impunity in the Middle East. So they were forced to get rid of the death penalty themselves in order to get that ‘off their books’.

Singapore: the judge is obliged to sentence a person to death for drug possession, even the smallest amount. There is zero tolerance. This contravenes international law as no due consideration is given to potential extenuating circumstances. Singapore’s reaction to Philips’s attempts to visit is complete rejection. However that said, Singapore’s execution rate has reduced in recent years.

In Indonesia there is currently a stated commitment to the death penalty but ongoing pressure both internal and external to abolish [no opportunity here to ask question about the recent introduction of Sharia Law to national penal code]. Interestingly, in Indonesia there is an inexplicably high number of foreigners on death row. It is unclear whether this is down to police or court discrimination, because obviously it is not just foreigners who handle drugs. But discrimination is surely indicated.

In Thailand there are some 757 currently on death rows in Bangkok alone. These convicts are hungry for information as they are kept completely in the figurative ( and possibly physical) dark. They are permanently shackled, crowded, share cramped dormitories, and have little access to medication and food.

China, India, Pakistan – no invitation to visit is ever extended to Philip: they simply will not countenance meeting with a UN rapporteur for the death penalty and torture. They will however meet with other rapporteurs for ‘softer’ human rights issues. Philip made the point that while abolition is important, we mustn’t lose sight of other wins we can achieve in these geographies, e.g. Question of ‘transparency’. In China, we are told they perpetuate the death penalty because ‘public opinion wants it’. The UN’s response is ‘ does the public know how many citizens are executed, where and why?’ The answer, as we know, is that of course they don’t. The public information is based on no information. Meanwhile, due process was recently introduced in China whereby the central court needs to confirm every single death sentence. This makes it harder for regional courts to be profligate with their  executions. Also of importance, in China the range of ‘serious crimes’ warranting the death penalty, while more rangy than most other retentionist nations, is nonetheless shrinking.

This question of ‘what are the most important crimes?’ is a very sensitive one. In Nigeria for example, it is believed that sodomy destroys the very fabric of society, and is therefore the worst possible crime and must be punished by death.