The death penalty – a Soviet tradition?
Belarus is the only country in Europe where the death penalty is still in place. This issue remains the main topic for negotiations about Belarus’ accession to the Council of Europe. Euroradio tried to understand why Belarusian authorities don’t want to abolish the death penalty.
Belarus could easily abolish the death penalty, says Harry Pogoniajlo, a human rights activist and head of the legal committee of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.
“For a country where the death penalty is given in 2-3 cases [per year], this issue generally has no serious significance. There is an alternative though, one which is already widely used by the courts and could make it possible to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty: life imprisonment. But, this depends on the will of one person.”
The death penalty is not only a bargaining chip, but also a part of President Alexander Lukashenko’s populist policy, the human rights activist believes. The application of the death penalty was first put to a referendum in 1996. The citizens of Belarus were then asked four questions, the main one being the issue of adopting a new constitution which extended Lukashenko’s term of office by two years and strengthened his presidential powers.
Pogoniajlo believes the death penalty is a populist issue:
“Even if Italy or Germany posed the question of applying the death penalty to terrorists, they would vote ‘for’. Even in countries with an established democracy, such questions cannot be for the public to decide upon. Government officials should lead the country themselves, and not follow the opinion of the majority. But in Belarus, it is directly connected with Lukashenko’s dictatorship. He is clinging to the ability to personally decide whether or not to execute or pardon a person. For him, this is one of the tools and sacred signs of his influence on the situation that he can use, and does not want to let [it] slip from his hands.”
“Authorities like to say that the death sentence strongly affects statistics; where there is a death penalty, there are fewer crimes – allegedly. But that’s not true,” says human rights defender Andrei Poluda, who for many years has been engaged in the affairs of Belarusians who have been sentenced to death.
Statistics show that over the past ten years, the number of death sentences in Belarus has remained almost unchanged. According to the National Statistics Committee, there are usually three per annum. There was a sharp jump last year though, with seven death sentences having been issued.
Annually, about seven Belarusian citizens receive life sentences, a statistic which has not changed in the last ten years. An exception was in 2013 when only two Belarusians received life sentences while many others death sentences.
In the case of murder statistics, everything was different. In 2007, there were 791 murders in Belarus, a number which decreased relatively smoothly in the following years: 645 in 2008, 486 in 2010 and 437 in 2016.
The absence of a link between the use of the death penalty and the number of murders can also be seen, for example, in Georgia. A moratorium on the death penalty in the country was introduced by former President Eduard Shevardnadze in 1996, and was officially abolished under former President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2007. The number of murders committed in Georgia changed drastically during that period, just after Saakashvili came to power: in 1998 there were 243 murders, 402 in 2005, 325 in 2008, 263 in 2009, 187 in 2010, 107 in 2011, and 60 in 2016.
“The government claims that the death penalty is preventative in nature, educational even. Why then is there so much mystery around it?” asks Poluda. According to him, even the name of the person who has been sentenced to death is often kept confidential, let alone other details of the crime: courts usually pass these sentences in a closed setting.
“In Belarus, the procedure for carrying out the death sentence is hidden behind a serious veil of secrecy. Bodies and possessions are not given to anyone and their burial places are not revealed. These are Soviet traditions. [They are] from the times when the authorities wanted to hide the extent of repression,” he says.