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)