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Council Of Europe: Death Penalty On Next Week's Agenda

Prague, 24 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Central and East European affairs will take up much of next week's business at the Winter session of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg.

The Assembly has scheduled for Wednesday a debate -- and perhaps a vote on a draft resolution -- on Russia and Ukraine's failures so far to implement moratoria on the death penalty, as both countries pledged to do when they became Council members. This issue was put on the Assembly's agenda at the request of its Legal Affairs Committee, which sponsored a conference on the subject in Kyiv two months ago. During the conference, both Russian and Ukrainian officials admitted that many executions of criminals have taken place in their countries since they were admitted to the Council.

The same day, the Assembly will also examine Estonia and Albania's honoring of their commitments to the Council when they became members. Draft resolutions on both countries are generally positive in tone, but still critical of some of their conduct since joining the Council.

Albania is faulted for what the draft calls "limit(ing) the right to free elections." The draft resolution also stresses "the need for...improvement in media access to official information and for unbiased political reporting on television."

Estonia is credited as having stated its intention to abolish the death penalty in February of next year, but criticized for not have instituted a moratorium on capital punishment before then. In the draft, Estonian authorities are also taken to task for their treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, which is said not to be in conformity with internationally recognized standards. Finally, the draft calls on Estonia to intensify the efforts already begun in the country to integrate the country's large Russian-speaking minority. It suggests that the teaching of the Estonian languages to members of this minority "be improved by offering courses free of charge or at a reduced rate to applicants for citizenship."

The Assembly intends to monitor member-state pledges even more closely in the future. A draft resolution prepared for a debate on Monday would set up a special Assembly committee to follow the implementation of promises made by members. The draft says that the "Assembly may sanction persistent failure to honor obligations" by suspending national parliamentary delegations of the states concerned. It also speaks of possible suspension from the Council of a member that "continue(s) not to respect its commitments."

Council officials tell our correspondent that these draft resolutions are almost certain to be endorsed by the full Assembly next week. That is true, too, of another draft resolution, concerning nuclear safety in Central and Eastern Europe, due to be discussed on Tuesday. In this draft, the Assembly says that nuclear safety in the area "needs radical improvement." It urges Central and East European governments to take a variety of measures to improve nuclear safety laws.

The situation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is also due to be debated by the Assembly. Council officials say that the Assembly will probably strongly criticize Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's annulment of November local election results and support those in Belgrade and other cities who have been demonstrating against the action for the past two months.

The Assembly's week-long session will hear addresses from Estonian Prime Minister Tilt Vahi, European Union Executive Commission President Jacques Santer and NATO Secretary General Javier Solana. The speeches by Santer and Solana reflect the Assembly's recognition of the Council of Europe's increasingly important relations with both the EU and NATO.

Of the Council of Europe's 40 member states, 15 are EU members and 11 -- including 10 Central and East European nations -- are candidates for membership. Many of its members also belong to NATO, and at least three and possibly five of its Central European members are expected later this year to be invited to join the 16-nation Atlantic Alliance.

On Sunday, the day before the Assembly sessions begins, hearings will be held at Council headquarters on affairs involving Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The three Caucasian countries enjoy Special Guest status at the Assembly, which allows their parliamentarians to participate in the body's debates and committee work without voting rights. All three nations have applied for full membership in the Council.

Council officials say that the closed-door hearings will discuss two long-standing contentious issues in the Caucuses: the disputes over Abkhazia and the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. The officials also say that it is an unwritten law of the Council not to grant membership to candidate states involved in armed conflicts either inside their own territory or with a neighboring state.