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Russian High Court Debates Reinstating Death Penalty

ST. PETERSBURG (Reuters) - Russia's Constitutional Court is deliberating on whether to restore the death penalty after a 13-year moratorium on executions expires in less than two months.

Whatever the court decides is likely to provoke heated debate in Russian society, which is split between those who back complete abolition and those who believe the death penalty deters serious crime.

Russia retains capital punishment in its criminal code but has observed the moratorium since 1996.

After two hours of hearings that included speeches by representatives of the president and parliament, the court's 19 judges began closed-door discussions on November 9. A spokeswoman for the court said it could take a month to reach a decision.

President Dmitry Medvedev's representative to the Constitutional Court said that "scrapping the death penalty is one of the goals of the judicial reforms being carried out in the country," but hinted that it could still take time.

"The position remains unchanged," Mikhail Krotov said during the court's session. "The position of the state and the head of state is a stage-by-stage abolition of capital punishment."

Medvedev, who has made establishing the rule of law his top priority, faces a surge in serious crime and increased violence in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus.

The President must also take account of public opinion. Surveys show that between 65 and 74 percent of Russians favor resuming executions, which were carried out before the moratorium by a pistol shot to the back of the head.

On January 1, 2010, the volatile Caucasus republic of Chechnya will become Russia's last region where juries will replace traditional panels of judges in courts, clearing the final formal obstacle to the death penalty's return.

A set of 1990s laws stipulated that the death penalty cannot be applied until jurors are introduced in all regions.

Russia committed itself to scrapping the death penalty in 1997, when it signed a protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. But it has never ratified the document, citing strong public opposition at home to the move.

"Despite the fact that Protocol Six [to the European Convention] has not yet been ratified, the Russian Federation is obliged to abstain from applying the death penalty until its full abolition," Alexander Kharitonov, who represents the Duma lower house of parliament in the Constitutional Court, told the court.

Russia's close political and military ally Belarus is the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union to execute prisoners. Human rights group Amnesty International estimates that about 400 people have been executed since Belarus gained independence in 1991, including four last year.