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In Belarus, Romany Man's Looming Execution Stirs Death Penalty Debate

WATCH: A Belarusian court rejected Yuzepchuk's appeal on October 2, saying he represented an "extreme danger to society."

By Claire Bigg

Each day could be the last for Vasyl Yuzepchuk, a 30-year-old illiterate Romany man who faces imminent execution in Belarus.

A court in June found him guilty of robbing and strangling six elderly women. The murders shocked the public in Belarus, where many applauded the court's decision to sentence him to death.

Yuzepchuk maintains his innocence and claims investigators tortured him into making a false confession.

After exhausting his appeals earlier this month, he is pinning his last hopes on clemency from Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

But the iron-fisted Lukashenka, who has pardoned just one person in 15 years in office, has so far ignored his plea.

'Beaten, Ill-Treated, And Threatened'

Human rights groups have mounted a campaign to support Yuzepchuk, who they say was wrongly convicted after a botched investigation and trial.

"Obviously it's a terrible crime and nobody is trying to belittle the crime itself, but when the sixth body was discovered, dozens of Roma were detained," says Heather McGill, a Belarus expert at Amnesty International. "Vasyl Yuzepchuk has said that he was beaten, ill-treated, and threatened. Witnesses have also said that they were threatened. So we have serious fair-trial concerns in this case."

European officials have also thrown their weight behind Yuzepchuk.

The Council of Europe issued a statement voicing deep concern about his fate and calling for an immediate suspension of the death penalty in Belarus, the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union that still executes prisoners.

Sweden's ambassador to Belarus, Stefan Eriksson, repeated the call at a news conference in Minsk on October 12.

"We hoped the process of introducing a moratorium on the death penalty would be pursued in parliament," said Eriksson, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency. "What we would like to see is a moratorium and, eventually, a complete abolition."

Simple Scapegoat?

Rights activists say Yuzepchuk was probably targeted as a scapegoat by investigators under pressure to solve the case.

Born in Ukraine, Yuzepchuk does not hold Belarusian citizenship and can neither read nor write. He belongs to the marginalized Romany community and earned a living running errands for elderly people.

Like many in Belarus, Prosecutor Mikalai Zhechka has done nothing to hide his distaste for the lifestyle of Yuzepchuk and his alleged accomplice, another Ukraine-born Rom who was sentenced to life in prison.

"The convicts don't have a permanent place of residence, they are not citizens of our republic, they are not employed anywhere, they led a free kind of life with casual earnings," Zhechka told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service after the Supreme Court rejected Yuzepchuk's appeal in early October. "Above all, their behavior was inhuman. I think the court gave them the sentence they deserved."

Roman Kislyak, a lawyer for Yuzepchuk, says he also has a diagnosed mental disability.

"He is unable to identify dates -- all he can tell is whether something happened in winter or in summer," he says. "He speaks indistinctly, he has an accent, and it's sometimes impossible to understand him."

Kislyak has helped Yuzepchuk file a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee. If irregularities in the trial are found, the committee can order Yuzepchuk's sentence to be commuted to imprisonment.

Under bilateral accords, Belarusian authorities cannot execute him pending the consideration of his case at the United Nations.

But according to Kislyak, Belarus has gone ahead with executions in the past without waiting for committee decisions, and Yuzepchuk could be put to death any day.

He says there is no deadline for Lukashenka's clemency decision, which could come in a day, a month, or a year.

Brutal Methods

Right activists estimate the country has executed some 400 people since gaining independence in 1991.

The pace of executions has slowed under international pressure. Only two people have been executed so far this year. But Lukashenka has stopped short of suspending capital punishment, which remains popular in Belarus.

Critics have condemned the country's brutal execution methods.

Convicts are executed within minutes of being told their appeals for clemency have been rejected. They are blindfolded and taken to a nearby room, where they are forced to their knees and shot in the back of the head. They are not allowed to see a priest.

Bodies of executed prisoners are buried in a secret location. The families are informed after the execution and never told where their relatives are buried.

"To the uninformed public, it's an easy solution. But it's not a solution to crime," says Amnesty International's McGill. "I think when people hear about these details, it makes them think twice -- about what it must be like to sit in a cell and to think every time the door opens that this could be your last moment of life. It's devastating."

As the debate over his case trudges on, Yuzepchuk is bracing for death. His lawyer says that despite his mental disability, he is fully aware that he faces execution and is emotionally shattered.