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Ukraine: Council Of Europe Pressure Results In Abolition Of Death Penalty

The Council of Europe has sometimes been criticized as ineffective in enforcing human rights. But in certain areas the body shows its power. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde reports from Kyiv that Ukraine's highest court struck down the death penalty largely because of Council of Europe pressure.

Kyiv, 24 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly meets for its winter session this week, one topic it will not take up is kicking out Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Constitutional Court ruled last month that the death penalty is unconstitutional, giving Ukraine a respite from Council of Europe criticism.

Ukraine's failure to abolish capital punishment had caused much complaint from the council, a human rights organization of 41 member states. The council's parliamentary assembly was planning to discuss annulling Ukraine's membership at its winter session this week.

Council of Europe official Tatiana Termacic told RFE/RL last week that the council has postponed that discussion.

"Ukraine was taken off the agenda of the parliamentary assembly next week because they (the council) thought that the decision of the Constitutional Court, as well as other things, showed good signs from Ukraine. So they decide not to examine the suspension of its delegation."

Pressure from the Council of Europe -- in the form of critical reports and repeated threats to annul membership -- was instrumental in bringing about the Constitutional Court ruling. The challenge to the legality of the death penalty was not brought by anyone who had been sentenced, but rather by parliamentary deputies, most of whom are members of the Council of Europe delegation.

When a country joins the Council of Europe, it must sign and ratify the European Convention on Human Rights. Countries that have a death penalty must pledge to abolish it. Ukraine, which joined in 1995, continued to enforce the death penalty until 1997. Since then, Ukraine has placed a de facto moratorium on executions, but courts have continued to hand down death sentences.

More than 400 people in Ukraine are currently in prison under death sentences. The December ruling by the Constitutional Court means that their sentences must be changed. But Ukraine's underfunded and harsh prison system will find it hard to cope with more prisoners serving life sentences -- as proponents of the death penalty are quick to point out. Death penalty advocates have also pointed to the heinousness of criminals such as mass murderer Anatoliy Onopriyenko, sentenced to death last year.

Legal expert Oleksandr Svetlov (of the Ukrainian Institute of State and Law) says the high crime rate requires the death penalty.

"My personal opinion is that we should abolish the [death] penalty, but not now -- in five or six years. [We should not wait until] our crime rate falls to a European level, because we won't live to see that, but at the moment the murder rate is ten times higher than in Western Europe. When we have a murder rate twice lower, then we can abolish it, but now it's just not possible."

Marjorie Farquharson works for the Council of Europe's Human Rights Directorate. She says abolition of the death penalty is a fundamental human rights issue.

"Economic arguments are not acceptable for the state to get rid of people, and also this thing that gets said repeatedly in Ukraine about [mass murderer Anatoly] Onopriyenko, that this is an animal, not a person -- well, unfortunately, crime is a human phenomenon, not an animal phenomenon, and our big task is to find a human way of dealing with it."

Other countries that still have death penalties on their lawbooks may follow Ukraine's example. Many East European countries are eager to avoid the council's censure, as expulsion from the council could jeopardize a country's chances of joining the European Union.