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In Rare Move, Belarusian Court Cancels Death Sentence In High-Profile Case

Viktar Skrundzik (in blue jacket) and Valyantsin Bushnin (in red jacket) appear in court in Slutsk on March 6.
Viktar Skrundzik (in blue jacket) and Valyantsin Bushnin (in red jacket) appear in court in Slutsk on March 6.

MINSK -- Belarus's Supreme Court has upheld the appeal of a death-row inmate and annulled his sentence in a murder case, a very rare move in the tightly controlled state led by autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The court also annulled two other sentences in the case on June 30, and sent it back for further investigation and a retrial. Belarus is the only country in Europe that enforces the death penalty.

A court in the central city of Slutsk in early March sentenced 29-year-old Viktar Skrundzik to death, 25-year-old Vital Myatsezh to 22 years in prison, and 33-year-old Valyantsin Bushnin to 18 years in prison, after finding them guilty of murdering two elderly persons, along with further crimes of attempted murder, arson, and robbery.

All three pleaded partially guilty and appealed their sentences. Skrundzik insisted at the trial that his initial confession in the crimes had been coerced by investigators.

Only Skrundzik was present at the appeal hearing on June 30.

He was brought to the courtroom handcuffed and in a special robe for death row convicts that has the letters VMN emblazoned on it. The acronym stands for capital punishment.

Skrundzik reiterated his stance, saying that he had confessed to the murders of the two elderly persons -- Mikhail Shuhaley and Uladzimer Harkavets -- under pressure, and stated that in fact he had not killed them.

According to Skrundzik, it was Bushnin who killed the two men. Skrundzik added that he feared Bushnin because, according to him, the man had connections in criminal circles.

Belarusian human rights activist Andrey Paluda called the court's decision "a historic moment."

"A death sentence was canceled, which is very rare.... The whole case will be reinvestigated and that is a big thing, which we hail," Paluda told RFE/RL.

For years, the European Union has urged Belarus to join other countries in declaring a moratorium on capital punishment.

According to Paluda, aside from Skrundzik, there are four other persons on death row in Belarus.

Rights organizations have said that more than 400 people have been sentenced to death in Belarus since it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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