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Eastern Europe: Abolish Capital Punishment Or Face Expulsion From Council of Europe

  • Kitty McKinsey

Prague, 20 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Can a country be truly democratic if it executes convicted criminals?

The Council of Europe, the continent's oldest body dedicated to the promotion of democracy, says no. Two years ago it took a tough stand calling for the continent-wide abolition of capital punishment. Now it's demanding that former communist countries fall in line.

Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the Council has acted as a human rights watchdog for the post-communist democracies. Because these countries value the Council's seal of approval as an important measure of their acceptance in the West, the Council has some leverage in encouraging them to live up to Western standards -- including abolishing capital punishment.

At the last session of the Council's Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, France, at the end of June, Russia, Ukraine and Latvia heard an unusually harsh warning: end executions of prisoners or face possible expulsion from the Council.

The Council called on the three countries to live up to the commitments they made when they were recently admitted to the Council. They pledged to immediately introduce a moratorium on executions and to then abolish capital punishment.

The Council also called on new member Lithuania to institute a moratorium without delay. And it expressed concern over calls for the reintroduction of capital punishment in several East European countries (including Hungary and Slovakia) that have already abolished it. Moldova, on the other hand, was singled out for praise for having abolished the death penalty at the end of last year.

The Council's position is that modern democratic states built on respect for human rights and the rule of law do not execute people. A report prepared for the Council said there is no evidence that capital punishment deters crime. On the contrary, it said, executions brutalize societies and encourage crime.

It cited the case of Canada, which abolished the death penalty for murder in 1976 and has seen the homicide rate drop steadily ever since. By contrast, the United States resumed the use of capital punishment in 1977 and the violent crime rate, including murder, has continued to rise.

The Council's pressure seems to be paying off. A month after the threat from the Council's Parliamentary Assembly, Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas issued a decree calling for an indefinite moratorium on capital punishment in the Baltic republic.

In Ukraine, Vitalii Boyko, chief justice of the Ukrainian Supreme Court, said his court will propose amendments to the criminal code to reduce the number of crimes carrying the death sentence. He said this would be a step toward phasing out capital punishment. But there is not yet a moratorium on executions in Ukraine and there are persistent but unconfirmed reports that executions are still taking place.

The Council of Europe remains highly concerned about Russia as well. Russia agreed to implement a moratorium on executions from the day it officially became a full member of the Council at the end of February. But the Council reports that as many as 46 people may have since been executed in violation of the moratorium. And the independent human rights body Amnesty International reports that 710 prisoners are on death row awaiting execution.

The Council's report on capital punishment praises Russia for taking a step in the right direction by reducing from 28 to 5 the number of crimes which can be punished by death.

But not all members of the Council are mollified. Matyas Eorsi, a Hungarian member of the Parliamentary Assembly calls the death penalty "state organized murders." As for Russia's so-called progress, he says: "I do not believe that between 28 state-organized murders and zero state-organized murders, we could compromise at 5."

While the Council's criticism is focused mostly on Eastern Europe, other countries did not escape its attention. It called on all member states who still have the death penalty on the books -- even though they do not use it -- to abolish it as soon as possible. These include not only Albania, Bulgaria, Poland and Estonia, but also Cyprus, Malta, Turkey and the United Kingdom.