“The last European Executioner”: why Belarus preserves the death penalty10 min read
While Amnesty International has called Belarus “the last executioner” in Europe, the Belarusian authorities don’t seem to be offended or even bothered by such a statement. The government has promised to eliminate the practice for years, yet no real steps towards change have been taken. Nonetheless, some people care; a few Belarusian NGOs, as well as the Orthodox Church, actively advocate against the death penalty. According to a poll made by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee a few years ago, public opinion on the matter also seems to be shifting. Will this mean that the future of capital punishment in Belarus is about to change?
Every day thousands of Belarusians pass by Detention Centre No. 1 on Volodarskaya street in Minsk, oblivious to the fact that this is where those sentenced to death spend their last days. While relatives of the convicted are among the few that might know of the place, they are neither told the time of the execution nor where their loved ones are being buried. The only thing handed back to them is the prison jumpsuit that they wore.
One of the reasons why Belarus can’t join the Council of Europe for Belarusians to have their rights defended by the European Court, is because of its Criminal Code, containing 14 articles that outline the most severe of punishments: anywhere from 10 years in prison up to the death penalty.
Capital punishment can only be sentenced to men between 18 and 65, and the 14 articles leading to the death penalty spell out dreadful crimes such as terrorism, genocide and the application of weapons of mass destruction. In recent time, almost all of the cases have been carried out under the same code: Article 139, Part 2: Murder committed under aggravating circumstances.
This usually involves so-called domestic assaults, such as a fight or a drunken brawl resulting in murder. On more rare occasions, the stories were much more brutal; in one case, a man sulking in jealousy killed his wife and her lover, chopped up their bodies, and boiled the wife’s skull in a pot. Some of the other brutal murders in recent times happened under the influence of spice – a synthetic drug that plagues many post-Soviet countries.
The exact number of executed prisoners remains uncertain. The last disclosure by the government happened back in 2006. According to independent observers such as Amnesty International, there have been about 350 men sentenced to death since 1990. In the late 20th century, around 30 people were executed annually. Since the beginning of the new millennium, there has been a drastic decrease, with no more than five people per year being executed.
Statistics on the annual number of verdicts handed down, compiled by the NGO Viasna. According to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, 2 people were sentenced to death and executed in 2019. (Editor’s note: Updated statistics as of May 2021)
According to a poll made by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, a positive trend can be noted; since 1996, when about 80 percent of the population supported keeping capital punishment in the criminal code, the number of people in favour of the death penalty has decreased and proponents are now slightly outnumbered by their opponents. This shows that there is a growing demand for human rights to be respected in the country.
According to the same poll, no more than 10 percent of the Belarusian population are aware that capital punishment is carried out based on it being interpreted as “on behalf of the people.” and about a third of them do not even know that capital punishment still exists in their country.
Another possible explanation for the poll results is connected to the low level of confidence in law enforcement and judicial institutions. According to research made by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, only a third of respondents “trust” or “rather trust” the law enforcement. The same number of people believe that they might be unfairly treated by the justice system.
Yuliya Khlashchankova, a member of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, one of the organisations dedicated to abolishing the death penalty, says: “In no way do we want to whitewash these people. They do, indeed, deserve the punishment for everything they have done. The problem is that a death sentence is imposed on behalf of the people. I do not want someone to be killed on my behalf”.
The only case of terrorism
One of the few times that the use of the death penalty actually caused a lot of debate was back in 2011, when the country, considered a stronghold of “stability and social contract” (i.e. generous public benefits in exchange for obedience), was struck by an explosion at Oktyabrskaya metro station. 15 people died and more than 200 were injured.
Within 40 hours 23-year old Vladislav Kovalyov and 25-year old Dmitry Konovalov were caught and accused of the attack. They had allegedly planted a homemade bomb at the station. However, the speed of the investigation made the public suspicious.
The trials of Kovalyov and Konovalov were crowded. Those who did not make it to the courtroom actively debated with friends and acquaintances, not missing a single report or news article. Attentive followers of the case found some inconsistency in the parties’ statements. No questions were answered, and observers thought that the trials gave rise to even more questions.
“I attended the judicial sessions on the explosion in the metro case”, testifies Andrey Paluda, a member of the human rights centre Viasna and a coordinator of a public campaign against capital punishment. “I have found several procedure violations, we filed a complaint to the UN Committee on Human Rights. But they did not even have time to consider it, that is how fast the sentences were carried out, even though the convicted usually spend about a year in a cell before the execution”.
Even after the cases were closed and the punishments carried out, people kept talking about them. Some of the observers even suspected that the men were innocently accused of other crimes for the authorities to improve their statistical data. This gives further proof of the level of mistrust towards law enforcement within Belarusian society.
The terrorist case, however, proved to be an exception with regards to the public’s interest in the death penalty. Neither before it nor after it have ordinary Belarusians cared about holding the judicial system accountable for its actions, checking and monitoring for possible misconduct of justice by attending the trials. “Most people more or less stick to the following position: let them do whatever they want as long as they do not intervene into our own lives”, says Yuliya Khlashchankova. “And well, attending the trials is not a popular thing to do”.
Proponents and opponents
When debating the death penalty, both proponents and opponents bring up quite mundane arguments. Opponents argue that one should not underestimate the value of human life and that it is wrong to take on the role of God or Creator. Depending on the view of the speaker, one should also not let an irreversible judicial mistake take place. However, it has also been argued that people who commit horrible crimes deserve severe punishment and that Belarusian citizens should not have to pay tax money for them to spend the rest of their lives in a cell. Proponents of abolishing capital punishment present their economical counterarguments. “A death penalty is not carried out by only one person”, explains Andrey Paluda. “So, even though we do not pay the expenses of the lifelong convict, our taxes also go to the maintenance and salaries of the execution squads which consist of thirteen people”.
“In fact, the government spends about 130 US dollars per prisoner each month”, says Yuliya Khlashchankova. “On average, there are two people sentenced to death per year. In total, we just need to find an additional three thousand dollars per prisoner a year, and we can be called a humane country again. I mean it is totally fine to care about the governmental expenditures of our taxes. It is just surprising that this question is not usually raised on other issues”.
Even the Belarusian Orthodox Church has argued against capital punishment, saying that “Every time the government executes its citizens, it crucifies Jesus one more time”.
A way out
The decision to implement the death penalty was made in a referendum back in 1996. The idea was actively advocated and lobbied for by Alexander Lukashenko, who was a candidate for the presidency at the time. The 1990s were a rough time in Belarus. Criminals were moving between Warsaw and Moscow via Minsk, and by appealing to people’s emotions, Belarusians were frightened enough to agree on shooting those who made the streets unsafe.
Only a year later, Viasna started to promote the idea of abolishing the death penalty. Since 2010, they have been united with human rights activists from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Amnesty International to conduct a huge campaign and raise awareness of the ongoing issue.
On their website, there is a link to sign a petition against capital punishment which has now collected more than 17 000 signatures. However, the activists say that they are not going to bring a petition to the president’s office as they do not believe that this will be efficient. In fact, this strategy is a part of the campaign.
According to the campaign leaders, change should preferably not come through a new referendum. The judicial article addressing capital punishment is formulated in an ambiguous way that authorizes “capital punishment unless being cancelled”, which gives leeway to changing the situation without having to change the national legislation. This is also something that has been brought up by Belarusian authorities, though without any concrete results.
Thus, to get rid of the death penalty there is no need to call for a referendum. Moreover, since the topic still involves some public opinion, human rights activists themselves do not believe that a referendum would be a good idea. Even though statistics show that the sentiments towards the death penalty have shifted, trusting that a new referendum would lead to the abolishment of the practice is too risky. It is easier than that – it turns out the Constitution does not need to be changed.
Though chances are slim, a second existing option is to seek a pardon from the president. During his time in power, however, Lukashenko has only pardoned one individual, a case of domestic murder that most Belarusians agree touched Lukashenko’s heart.
Proponents of capital punishment argue that the awareness of harsh punishment prevents crimes from taking place. However, human rights activists argue that it is not the severity of punishment but whether a punishment is actually enforced that can have more influence on a potential murderer.
If awareness of harsh punishment prevents crimes from taking place, the execution of a criminal is actually happening twice according to Andrey Paluda. In a carefully tailored plan, the government makes sure that information about the case and the murderer is widely spread throughout the media, making it an “online execution” before the actual execution.
However, activists insist that capital punishment does not address the causes behind most crimes. For instance, alcohol is one of the drivers behind criminal offences in Belarus. At the same time, the sale of alcohol brings a lot of custom taxes to the public treasury. Instead of tackling the problems that alcohol consumption brings, execution becomes an extreme measure to eliminate its consequences “surgically”.
“That is why Belarus is always criticized”, says Andrey Paluda. “As we love to say, we are in the very heart of Europe, and it is true indeed from a geographical point of view. At the same time, we still keep capital punishment. Moreover, we are the last ones to preserve it, not only in Europe but even in the post-Soviet space. People are not born according to a president’s decree. So why do they die because of his signature? Why does the government not deal with the relatives of the executed?”
In the end, he brings up a famous saying by Gandhi: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”.
Disclaimer: since this article was published, the Lukashenko regime has pardoned two brothers who were sentenced to death in January 2020 for having killed their former school teacher and set her house on fire to destroy the evidence.