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Russia/Ukraine: Countries Face Expulsion Unless Death Penalty Abolished

  • Ron Synovitz

Prague, 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly is threatening to expel delegates from Kyiv and Moscow unless the death penalty is abolished in their countries once and for all.

When Russia and Ukraine joined the council more than three years ago, they promised to protect human rights, to carry out judicial reforms and to draw up new penal codes that do not include the death penalty. They also promised to adopt Protocol Six of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans death sentences.

Since then, both countries have declared a moratorium on capital punishment. But legislators in Kyiv and Moscow continue to block the promised criminal code amendments and passage of Protocol Six. Even more disturbing to European officials, they say, was the council's discovery that authorities in Kyiv lied about declaring a moratorium.

Hanne Severinsen -- a member of the Parliamentary Assembly's Monitoring Committee -- tells RFE/RL that Ukraine's membership in the Council of Europe is now at risk because authorities secretly executed prisoners in 1997 after claiming they had stopped the practice.

"What is special for Ukraine was the secrecy of their executions. I was shocked to hear that they continued to execute people [after] they had promised not to do it. They had turned it into a state secret."

Last month, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Ukraine's relations with the West are threatened because of Kyiv's failure to respect what he called "contractual obligations" to scrap the death penalty. Fischer -- the current president of the European Union's Council of Ministers -- lists capital punishment, together with Chornobyl, as issues undermining EU-Ukrainian relations.

Renate Wohlwend -- a member of the Legal Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly -- also is concerned about the lack of judicial safeguards in Russia and Ukraine.

Wohlwend notes numerous capital cases in Russia where confessions allegedly were obtained under duress and torture. She said miscarriages of justice seem "not only possible, but probable" in Russia. She also quotes research by Valery Borshev -- a human rights consultant to President Boris Yeltsin -- who found judicial errors in one-third of Russia's death-penalty cases.

Russian authorities admit that at least 53 prisoners were put to death before a moratorium on executions was declared in August 1996 -- more than half a year after joining the Council of Europe.

The London-based human rights organization Amnesty International says Moscow also is not telling European officials about all of the executions there. Amnesty International says at least 140 prisoners were put to death in the Russian Federation during 1996 alone.

Despite the Kremlin's claim that there have been no executions in the Russian Federation during the last two-and-a-half years, western correspondents have witnessed public executions under Islamic law in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Courts in other Russian regions continue to issue death sentences under the latest criminal code, which came into effect in 1997 -- nearly a year after Russia joined the Council of Europe. That criminal code lists five capital offenses. The governor of the Omsk Region, Leonid Polezhayev, is urging the adoption of a law permitting the use of the death penalty in drug-dealing cases.

Other regional governors -- aware of polls showing that most Russians favor capital punishment to deter crime -- say it would be political suicide to advocate abolition of the death penalty.

Last month, Russia's Constitutional Court imposed a second moratorium that bans courts from issuing any death sentence until a jury system is adopted throughout Russia. The ruling came in response to an appeal last year by three death-row inmates who complained about having been tried and sentenced to death without a jury.

The Russian Constitution says people suspected of grievous crimes have the right to a jury trial. But so far, only nine of Russia's 89 regions have a jury system in place. Russian legal experts say completing the reform process could take years.

Meanwhile, human rights activists in Russia and abroad say the recent Constitutional Court ruling effectively abolishes the death penalty. But they are urging parliament to go one step further by removing capital punishment from the law books.

Russian Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov said last month that draft amendments replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment should be ready by early this spring. But passage remains uncertain. The State Duma is dominated by Communists and other hard-liners who oppose the abolition of the death penalty.

About 800 people are currently on death row in Russia. Most were tried without a jury. Death-row inmates may have their sentences commuted by a presidential clemency commission -- a practice that is common in Russia but is not automatic.

Central and Eastern European states that have abolished the death penalty generally are those making the most serious efforts to position themselves for membership in the EU -- such as Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. Others include Lithuania, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Macedonia and Moldova.

The foreign affairs committee of the Latvian Parliament has backed a draft law expected to get a final reading after spring recess.

But as in Russia and Ukraine, a growing crime rate and recent well-publicized murder cases have raised popular support for capital punishment. That makes it more difficult for politicians to support legislation that would abolish executions.

(First of four features on the use of capital punishment in different parts of the world.)