The current national constitution prescribes capital punishment for “grave crimes.” Later laws have clarified the specific crimes for which capital punishment can be used. The death penalty can be imposed for crimes that occur against the state or against individuals. A few non-violent crimes can also be punishable by death. As of 2020, Belarus is the only country in Europe that continues to carry out the death penalty.
Following a referendum on the issue, the Belarusian government took steps to change the way capital punishment is imposed and carried out. International organisations, such as the United Nations, have criticised the methods Belarus uses when carrying out capital punishment. The use of capital punishment is one factor keeping the country out of the Council of Europe.
As per the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, capital punishment can be imposed for the following acts:
- Launching or conducting aggressive war;
- Murder of a representative of a foreign state or international organisation in order to provoke international complications or war;
- International terrorism;
- Crimes against humanity;
- Application of weapons of mass destruction under international treaties of the Republic of Belarus;
- Violation of the war laws and usage;
- Murder committed under aggravating circumstances;
- Treason connected with murder;
- Conspiracy to seize state power;
- Terrorist acts;
- Murder of a police officer.
Most of the death penalty convictions were for a murder committed under aggravating circumstances. Court proceedings involving capital cases must involve a “collegial consideration,” consisting of one judge and two People’s assessors. The People’s assessors are chosen from the general population, similar to the jury system.
Over the years, the number of offenses eligible for the death penalty and the type of convicts eligible for it has been reduced. In 1993, four economic crimes that would have resulted in death sentences during the Soviet era were removed from the list of capital offenses by a vote of parliament and were replaced by prison terms without parole. Although the total number of categories of crime qualifying for capital punishment declined during this time, Presidential Decree No. 21, issued on 21 October 1997, added “terrorism” to the list of capital offenses. When the Criminal Code was updated in 1999, the number of capital offenses was further reduced. This reduction was assisted by the introduction of life imprisonment in December 1997.
Public opinion about death penalty in Belarus
In a 1996 referendum, one of the seven questions asked was about abolishing the death penalty. According to the results of this referendum, 80.44% of Belarusians were against abolition. However, at the time of the referendum, the longest available prison sentence was 15 years. Since then the sentence of lifelong imprisonment was introduced. There have not been more recent surveys to determine whether the change in maximum prison sentence affected public sentiment about the death penalty.
More recently a parliamentary special working group announced plans to conduct a public opinion poll, but the Information and Analytical Center with the Administration of the President took over this undertaking. The Center has released its report, “Public Opinion about the Activity of the Organs of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus,” which included the questions about death penalty and the attitudes of Belarusian citizens about the abolition of capital punishment. That poll showed only 4.5% of the respondents were against capital punishment in all cases, 79.5% considered capital punishment appropriate punishment for at least some grave crimes, and about 10% had difficulty answering these questions or offered no opinion.
There have been several steps taken toward reducing the imposition of the death penalty in Belarus. The Law of the Republic of Belarus of 31 December 1997 added Article 22, which allows for “imprisonment for the term of one’s life (life imprisonment) as an alternative to capital punishment.” Capital punishment has also since been restricted to men between the age of 18 and 65.
On March 11, 2004, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Belarus came to the conclusion that two articles of the Criminal Code were incompatible with the Constitution of Belarus. The Court stated that either the President of the National Assembly could make the decision to suspend or completely abolish the death penalty. Subsequently, in October 2005, the Parliament adopted an amendment to the Criminal Code declaring that the continued use of the death penalty was on a temporary basis only.