Why the death penalty continues to be applied in Belarus
“I do not have an answer for why the death penalty is still in place in Belarus. Belarus is not some exceptional state – there are no conflicts between religions or ethnic groups, no international conflicts, the crime rate is not high.”
Lawyer, Human Rights Centre Viasna
Belarus originally brought the death penalty into its criminal law from the Soviet Union, where executions were frequent in the 1930s. Both men and women were executed, including for economic crimes. Executions continued to occur after 1991, when Belarus became fully independent: 12 articles in the criminal code authorize capital punishment, as well as two crimes in wartime.
Today, women are no longer sentenced to death; the death penalty applies to men between the ages of 18 and 65. Since 1991 fewer executions have taken place, but they still occur. In practice, the death penalty is now applied only in murder cases. Last year four people were executed and two people have already been placed on death row in 2019. A prisoner who has been sentenced to death may appeal for a pardon from the President, but this has only been granted once.
“Belarus officials claim that the death penalty reduces crime rates, but statistics show no correlation between crime rates and the death penalty.”
Issues of due process
As Julia Ouahnon noted, “human rights violations happen at every stage of the judicial process”. Judicial officials are not independent. There is no presumption of innocence. Many accused have no access to a lawyer and trials often take place without a lawyer present. Prisoners are often tortured physically or psychologically to sign declarations of guilt which are subsequently difficult to retract. Socially or economically vulnerable detainees are often represented by state lawyers who encourage them to plead guilty in order to reduce their sentences.
The absence of an appeal mechanism in Belarus is a particular concern. The Supreme Court imposes sentences as the court of first instance and there is no option of appeal to a higher court. This procedure violates the ICCPR and means that sentences are arbitrary and lack due process. The effect is to permit execution of potentially innocent people.
Violations of the rights of families
The current system in Belarus violates the rights of the accused but also their families. The UN has identified numerous violations of the rights of family members, including withholding information from them, failure to return the body after execution, and refusal to disclose the location of the grave.
Neither condemned prisoners nor their families are informed about the execution process. Noting that “it is an old Soviet practice to punish the family of a guilty or accused person,” Anaïs Marin confirmed that States must refrain from executing in secret and must make information available to families.
Andrei Paluda drew attention to the practice of publishing cruel and libellous articles about the families of prisoners who are executed. He argued that this should be inadmissible. In his view, “the existence of the death penalty creates a spiral of hatred that affects the whole society”..
Before her father’s arrest, Mr Yakavitski’s daughter, Aliaksandra Yakavitskaya, had not been aware that Belarus retained the death penalty. At her father’s trial, she said, some witnesses were not sober and made contradictory statements. “The main argument in my father’s conviction was that there was simply no one else to blame and he already had a prior conviction.” While he was held in the pre-execution facility, she was given little information and he was subject to heavy security measures and cruel treatment. Neither Mr Yakavitski nor his family were told the date of execution. The family was only notified a month after the execution had taken place. They did not receive his body for burial, or his personal belongings, and do not know where, or if, he is buried. After articles were published in the media, people said that she and Mr Yakavitski’s wife had murderous blood in their veins and deserved the same fate as her father.
About Henadz Yakavitski’s family
He was executed in 2016
The need for information and debate
It is frequently argued in Belarus that the death penalty cannot be abolished because it has public support. A recent survey found that 60% of the public support capital punishment and that 23% are unaware that the death penalty is applied. The panellists pointed out that the secrecy of the authorities makes it difficult for people to inform themselves. The Government provides no official figures and discloses little information about its decisions and procedures. The media do not provide sound information either. The subject of capital punishment is rarely debated in the country. Abolition might be introduced into law by the President, by Parliament or through a referendum. The panellists discussed these various options.
The current President has stated that he cannot go against the will of the people. However, Andrei Paluda argued that public opinion should not be the decisive factor. France abolished the death penalty at a time when the majority of French people supported it.
Belarus could declare a moratorium, and convert all pending sentences to imprisonment. By their decisions, judges and prosecutors could also establish a de facto moratorium without any form of declaration.
Mr Naumovich was more cautious. As a member of the Parliamentary Working Group on Death Penalty Issues, he acknowledged that a majority of the public and many members of Parliament remain in favour of the death penalty. A referendum held now would not necessarily succeed and, if either a referendum or Parliament voted against abolition, “it would block progress for many years to come. […] Every country has its own way to solve this problem, and everyone is working in their own pace.”
All agreed that abolitionists need to reach out to the public, not just in Minsk but throughout the country. Arguing that “the more people know about the death penalty, the more they are against it,” Tatiana Termacic suggested that the government should lead a national public debate on the question.
Belarus is the only country in Europe that retains the death penalty, and the Council of Europe has prioritized abolition in Belarus, believing it is eventually inevitable. Belarus has a poor record of international cooperation with human rights bodies in this area. The Belarus authorities do not recognize the European Court in Strasbourg and consider recommendations made by UN human rights bodies to be non-mandatory. They have ignored recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee and have carried out executions while it is still considering appeals. In the absence of a national appeals process in Belarus, nevertheless, appeals through UN bodies are a particularly important recourse for Belarus citizens.
Challenges and recommendations
• Pending abolition, Belarus should introduce an appeals system for capital cases.
• Belarus should work in cooperation with UN human rights bodies to improve justice.
• The Government should immediately meet its international obligation to release information about the death penalty, provide information to those condemned to death as well as their families, and return to their families the bodies and possessions of those who have been executed.
• The Government should encourage a public debate on the death penalty. Activists should encourage public discussion of the issue throughout the country
“There are many obstacles on the road to recognition of human rights. That road is made by walking. I am sure the death penalty in Belarus will be abolished. But how many people do we have to lose before it is?”
whose son Vladislav Kovalev was executed in 2012