Executions in Belarus

http://gdb.rferl.org/06569B28-FFF9-4AF3-A803-C4A7C44A9A0A_mw800_mh600.jpgCasting doubts on the genuine willingness of the Belarusian authorities to engage in a political dialogue with Europe.

Two men were executed last week in Belarus, according to two human-rights organisations, Amnesty International and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

The executions were reportedly conducted in complete secrecy, and the Belarusian authorities have issued no official statement. But we know that the two men – Andrei Zhuk and Vasily Yuzepchuk – had had their appeals for clemency turned down.

If the reports are accurate, the decision to proceed with the two executions will be a sign of disregard for the UN: at the time of the reported executions, the two men's cases were under examination in the UN Human Rights Committee.

The executions would also cast doubts on the genuine willingness of the Belarusian authorities to engage in a political dialogue with Europe. The decision would make the recent setting up of a working group on the death penalty in the Belarusian parliament appear no more than another cosmetic measure.

Belarus is the only European state that is not a member of the Council of Europe, and it is the only one that still carries out executions.

There is a link between the two: being a member of the Council of Europe implies shared values, and the rejection of capital punishment is one of those values. In the 1990s, the de facto abolition of the death penalty became a political and legal condition for membership in the organisation.

Since 1994, membership of the Council of Europe has been contingent on states placing an immediate moratorium on the death penalty. Today, only one member state, the Russian Federation, retains the death penalty on its statute books, but it has implemented a moratorium since 1996.

If Belarus wants a place in Europe, it is therefore of paramount importance that it abolish the death penalty.

In defence of its retention of the death penalty, the Belarusian authorities often cite the outcome of a referendum held in 1996, in which more than 80% of the electorate voted in favour of retaining the death penalty. This is an unacceptable excuse: many states have effectively overcome these obstacles and abolished capital punishment.

There had been reason to hope Belarus too was inching towards a moratorium.

The number of crimes for which the death penalty applies has been reduced significantly, to 14, and in 2004 the Belarusian constitutional court itself suggested that the death penalty was at odds with the criminal code and recommended that a moratorium on executions be introduced as the first step towards total abolition.

This has been coupled with a marked reduction in the number of death sentences and in a fall in the number of executions: there was one execution in 2007, four in 2008, and none was reported in 2009.

These and other, limited, improvements in the area of human rights, made by the Belarusian authorities in 2008-09 in response to demands made by the EU and the Council of Europe, led the Council of Europe to reassess its policy towards Belarus. As a result, in June 2009, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommended restoring Belarus's special guest status with the assembly (a status suspended in 1997). The condition was that Belarus impose a moratorium on executions.

Regrettably, the authorities have not seized this opportunity to begin a process of closer and more structured dialogue.

Sinikka Hurskainen

Rapporteur of the political affairs committee on the situation in Belarus; chairwoman of the ad hoc sub-committee on Belarus; Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
The European Voice