Belarus: the Last Refuge for the Death Penalty in Europe

Highly controversial and widely criticized in the EU and around the world, the death penalty continues to be legal under the Belarusian constitution and justified by the Belarusian people in cases of grave crimes. Whether it is morally acceptable or ethically wrong, the issue of capital punishment has thrown a spanner in the works of Belarusian politicians vying for a seat in the Council of Europe, with Belarus being the only European country to allow the executions of its prisoners.

 

History of the death penalty in Belarus

The death penalty has been a part of the country’s policy since it gained independence from the Soviet Union. Article 24 of the National Constitution prescribes this punishment for “grave crimes” that occur against the state or against individuals. A number of non-violent crimes can also be punishable by death. Under the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus these crime include terrorism (both domestic and international), treason, sabotage, conspiracy to seize state power, aggressive warfare and violation of war laws, genocide, acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and crimes against humanity, murders of a police officer or of a diplomat, as well as murders of civilians committed under aggravating circumstances. Statistically, the last one is the most common charge brought against those that would later find themselves on the death row.

Over the years the number of crimes punishable by death has been reduced excluding a number of economic crimes, however, terrorism has since been added to the list. On March 1, 1994, the decision was made to pronounce women ineligible for capital punishment. As of January of 2001 same goes for persons under the age of 18 at the time when they committed the crime or over 65 at the time of sentencing. Furthermore, under Article 84 of the Constitution, the president of the Republic of Belarus “may grant pardons to convicted citizens”. There is reliable information that President Lukashenko granted at least 2 presidential pardons in his time in office.

The retention of the death penalty in Belarus has for years been criticized by European officials and institutions. In 2000 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued the following statement:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the executions in Belarus and deplore the fact that Belarus is currently the only country in Europe where the death penalty is enforced and, moreover, is regularly and widely enforced”.

By choosing to abstain during the vote on the UN Moratorium on the Death Penalty (adopted by the UN General Assembly on 18 December 2008) the Republic of Belarus showed its intention to pursue its own national interests and avoid taking steps towards abolishing capital punishment.

Belarus is known as the only European country to have carried out executions in the 21st century. This issue has been quoted as the reason for Belarus being denied a seat as a temporary or honorary member of the European Council, as its current members have suggested a number of times that Belarus should abolish capital punishment before it can apply for membership in the Council.

Furthermore after the abolishment of death penalty in Uzbekistan on January 1st 2008 Belarus remains the last post-Soviet state where this kind of penalty is still utilized.

In its yearly review, presented in May 2008, the international human rights organization Amnesty International called Belarus the ‘last hangman in Europe’. Over the years the organization has often addressed the Belarusian authorities with the urge to refrain from the death penalty, criticizing both its presence in the legal system and the procedure of its implementation, as well as quoting the Belarusian Constitution. Article 24 proclaims ‘Everyone has the right to life. The state protects human life from all unlawful attempts’.

 

Methods and number of executions

The precise details of the executions are usually kept secret, yet it is certain the official method used to carry out the death sentence in Belarus is execution by shooting. On the day of the execution the death-row inmate is believed to be transported to a secret location, where he is told that his appeals were rejected. The procedure is thought to be quick with no relatives in attendance. Doctors on sight pronounce the inmate dead, give out the death certificate and the body is then buried, once again, in an undisclosed location. The family members are later notified of the fact that the execution has taken place in an official letter, omitting the details of the execution and of the site of the offender’s grave.

Such method of execution does not sit well with many European officials and human rights groups, who have previously called such practices inhumane.

There is as much mystery surrounding the exact number of death penalty sentences carried out annually. Some reports suggest the number has varied from 2 to 9 persons a year in the last two decades.

The website of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs provides the following information:

 

Time period Number of executions
1990-1995 148
1996-2000 139
2001-2005 19
2006-2010 19
2011-2015 9
2016 4
2017 Not known

 

There is speculation that the official numbers may be inaccurate due to the lack of transparency on the part of Belarusian authorities and their desire to avoid death penalty related publicity. What is undoubtedly true, however, is that the number of executions has dramatically dropped since the 90’s and briefly in 2012-2015 while the negotiations with Europe were underway the executions almost stopped.

 

Public opinion

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has multiple times reminded the Belarusian people and the rest of the world that the Belarusian citizens themselves at the 1996 referendum overwhelmingly voted for the retention of the capital punishment. According to the Belarusian Constitution issues and proposals approved and implemented by a referendum may only be overturned by another referendum. Lukashenko has said that he is certain that if there were a new vote the result would be the same as back in 1996.

According to some reports the support for the retention of the death penalty surged even higher after the terrorist attack on the Minsk metro that took place on the 11th of March 2011 and shocked and devastated a traditionally secure and peaceful country. The terrorist attack left 15 dead and 203 injured sending Belarusian people into mourning and disbelief.

The investigation and manhunt that followed kept the country on its toes and the sigh of relief was palpable as two alleged culprits were apprehended. Both of them were found guilty and sentenced to death. The Belarusian authorities promptly after the sentencing officially announced that the executions had been carried out.

The reactions to these executions were mixed with human rights groups and opposition parties expressing their concern about some of the practices employed by officials during the investigation, yet a large number of Belarusians admitted to feeling safer after the threats were neutralized.

 

UNDP Conference “Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide”

On March 10th 2016 Minsk together with the United Nations hosted the “Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide” conference with the aim of building bridges between Belarus and Europe. The conference was a landmark event, according to the EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis. He noted that the 20th century saw a considerable increase in the number of countries that chose to abandon capital punishment, including moratoriums and full prohibition (as of 2017 more than 150 countries). According to Lambrinidis, it is essential that life sentences become the most severe form of punishment. He added that in many countries, the majority of the population was against abandoning the death sentence but the leaders made a political decision to go through with it, and with time, the citizens got on board.

Belarus plays an important role in resolving international crises, Andrea Rigoni, PACE rapporteur on Belarus, said at the conference. Mr. Rigoni then stated that he wanted Belarus to return to the Council of Europe. “I consider it necessary to move in this direction with greater determination in order to accelerate the process of rapprochement of Belarus with the Council of Europe and with the values of the Council of Europe. It is a long process and we are here to protect our views, our values and to support a moratorium on the death penalty, which is one of our fundamental values. Having started this process together, we should keep moving together, making small steps towards our common goal. I believe that the EU should have more influence on this process and make more of an effort to see the results,” Andrea Rigoni said. Meanwhile, he noted that the position of the Council of Europe on the death penalty is that it should be fully abolished. Rigoni added that the moratorium could allow Belarus to return to the PACE as a special guest.

As of 2017, the future of the capital punishment in Belarus is unknown. The arguments presented by the supporters of life sentences, such as the assumption that a life sentence may be a more severe form of punishment on the offender, do not seem to have resonated with the Belarusian public or statesmen. The pressure from the outside and the media campaigns did little to sway the majority or bring enough attention to the issue for it to be discussed in offices or households. Although there is talk of potentially addressing the issue on the governmental level or holding a state-wide referendum, as of 2107 no definite steps in this direction have been taken.

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