MINSK (Reuters) -- Human rights group Amnesty International has called on Belarus to abolish the death penalty, if the ex-Soviet state wants closer ties with the European Union.
Belarus, praised by the EU for the release of what the West called political prisoners last year, is the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union to execute prisoners.
The condemned are shot in the back of the head.
Amnesty estimates about 400 people have been executed since Belarus gained independence in 1991, including four last year.
"The Belarusian authorities should, without delay, bring in a moratorium on carrying out capital punishment, as a first step towards total abolition of the death penalty," Amnesty said in a statement.
"By abolishing the death penalty, Belarus would reduce its isolation from the rest of Europe," Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty's director for Europe and Central Asia, told journalists in Minsk.
Amnesty says prisoners are told they will be executed only at the last moment. Their families are only told after the execution and bodies of prisoners are not returned to them.
Closer EU Ties
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for years accused by the West of hounding the media, imprisoning opposition figures and banning demonstrations, has sought closer ties with the EU after a gas row with traditional ally Russia two years ago.
The EU lifted a travel ban on Lukashenka and dozens of officials after the release of the prisoners. Since then, he has walked a thin line between moving closer to the EU and maintaining good ties with Moscow.
Belarus has said capital punishment is an internal affair and cites a referendum in 1996, in which the majority of people voted for keeping the death sentence.
Belarus is an applicant to the Council of Europe, one of the oldest human rights institutions, but cannot join until executions are abolished. The EU also requires its abolishment before membership.