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East: Amnesty International Campaigns Against Death Penalty

London, 18 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The human rights movement Amnesty International says it is vital that countries seeking closer ties with Europe abolish the death penalty.

Amnesty spokeswoman Soraya Bermejo was speaking after the release yesterday of Amnesty International's annual report which documents the use of the death penalty in 55 countries in 1997.

Amnesty International, which campaigns against the death penalty worldwide, estimates that 2,400 prisoners were executed last year, although the real figure was probably much higher.

The countries include Belarus where at least 30 people were executed last year. The U.N. Human Rights Committee has expressed concern at the high number of executions in Belarus, as well as the number of crimes for which capital punishment is applicable.

The Amnesty report says 13 people were executed in Ukraine and more than 260 remained under sentence of death. This prompted the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe to threaten Ukraine with expulsion should more be carried out.

The assembly also voted to condemn Russia for violating its commitment to stop executions, and also threatened it with expulsion from the Council of Europe. Since then, President Boris Yeltsin has told his government to take steps towards abolition, although at least 846 people remain on death row.

"The Council of Europe and the U.N. Committee against Torture have requested this type of reform from countries like Russia. Russia has placed a moratorium on the death penalty as a result of a specific request by the Council of Europe. It's so important for the EU to continue to apply pressure in that sense. The death penalty has no place in Europe."

Russian officials say no executions were carried out in the Russian Federation after August 1996 except in Chechnya.

AI welcomes the commutation of death sentences and the abolition of this punishment for all crimes in Georgia, and the announcement of a moratorium on executions in Azerbaijan, where at least 16 death sentences were passed during 1997.

Twenty-six executions were reported in Kyrgyzstan but in October President Akayev signed into law a new criminal code reducing the number of crimes which carry the death penalty.

The Amnesty report says torture and ill-treatment by security forces, police or state authorities continued to be the most widely reported human rights violation in the Europe region in 1997.

"In Europe, there are still many cases of torture and imprisonment by the security, police or state authorities. We have recorded cases in at least 28 countries where people have died as a result of these violations."

The report cites the torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Belarus where the practice of "press camera" (using prisoners to control or ill-treat other prisoners) is said to be common in prisons.

The Amnesty report says hundreds of people -- mostly ethnic Albanians -- were tortured or ill-treated by police in Macedonia following protest against the authorities in July last year.

The report notes that the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed alarm at the failure by authorities in Bulgaria to investigate cases of harassment against ethnic minorities, particularly members of the Roma minority.

Cases of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners were widely reported throughout the region. In Azerbaijan, groups of political prisoners were convicted in proceedings that reportedly fell short of international standards after testimony allegedly extracted under duress was allowed into evidence.

"We are very concerned about the situation in Azerbaijan. Groups of political prisoners were convicted on procedures which are considerably short of international standards. Sometimes the testimony has been obtained under pressure to give evidence. International legislation dictates that this is not the kind of testimony that can be admitted if you have been tortured, ill-treated or otherwise forced to give evidence."

The report says that in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the whereabouts of more than 19,000 people, many of whom "disappeared" in the custody of police or armed forces, remains unknown. Of more than 2,000 people still missing as a result of the armed conflict in Croatia, many were thought to have "disappeared."

The Amnesty report covers human rights abuses in 141 countries.