The Death Penalty in Belarus in 2009
The year of 2009 failed to become a turning point in the abolition or the declaration of a moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus. Belarus is still the only country in Europe and in the ex-Soviet area that keeps passing and executing death sentences.
At the same time, for the first time in the history of independent Belarus the issue of the death penalty appeared in the forefront of wide public attention. Unlike the previous years when it were the international organizations and the human rights community who used to raise the question, in 2009 representatives of various levels of the Belarusian authorities repeatedly stated that serious measures should be taken to abolish the death penalty or declare a moratorium on the punishment. However, it should be observed that the issue was primarily debated politically with clear pragmatic purposes, considering the pressure by the international community. Meanwhile, such vital aspects as the correlation of the existence of the death penalty with crime rates, the humanization of the criminal legislation, the moral side of the issue failed to be properly attended to in the officials’ statements. The Belarusian civil society activists, in the turn, did their best to include the aspects in the general discussion.
The first half of the year brought hope for the readiness of the Belarusian authorities to consider the issue of the abolition or the declaration of a moratorium on the death penalty. The Official Minsk considered steps in this direction as a demonstration of the announced liberalization, one of the political aspects of the dialogue with European countries, and linked this with the prospects of Belarus' membership in the Council of Europe. This position is clearly seen in the statements by Belarusian officials.
Thus, on 21January, at a press conference, Prosecutor General of Belarus Ryhor Vasilevich said he did not rule out the abolition of the death penalty when joining the Council of Europe: "This is a requirement of the Council of Europe. If we go there – we have to adopt the existing rules. They say, when in Rome do as the Romans do.’ However, the Prosecutor General added that at this stage he considers the existence of such a punishment as justified ‘primarily as a preventive measure.’
A moratorium on the death would help ‘more easily establish’ a dialogue with the countries of Europe, said Anatol Hlaz, Vice-Chair of the Commission on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media of the House of Representatives, at a press conference on 20 May. According to him, Belarus can consider this issue, and now it is possible ‘to work out the legislative framework for a moratorium on the death penalty.’ Mikalai Samaseika, Chair of the Committee on Legislation and Legal and Judicial Affairs, in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda (07.04.2009) argued that ‘at present the Republic of Belarus has actually approached the question of abolishing the death penalty. However, initially a moratorium on the death penalty should be considered. Officially, it has not been raised in the Parliament yet. But discussion of this issue can be ripe in the foreseeable future.’
A number of convincing statements regarding the work in the direction were made by the Presidential Administration. On 11 June Deputy Head of the Administration Valery Mitskevich said: ‘The issue of the death sentence is not a new one, it is constantly being considered and will be considered as long as there is no final decision.’ According to him, the decision on the moratorium is quite possible: ‘Any decisions and any legislative control are possible. To do this, we have to pass either a draft law, or a regulation by head of state. On 17 June, during a meeting of the Public Advisory Council on the issue of humanization of the penal system, Uladzimir Makey, head of the Presidential Administration, in his turn, said that ‘the issue of capital punishment should not be seen as something fixed forever. I also met with Mr. Rigoni (PACE's Rapporteur on Belarus - Ed. Note), and we talked on the issue. We have already reduced the number of articles in the Criminal Code, which provided for the death penalty, and in practice such punishment has begun to be used less frequently. Moreover, it (the issue of abolishing the death penalty - Ed. Note) must be considered in the context of Belarus' accession to the Council of Europe. So far, we are talking only about the restoration of the Special Guest status, but if there is a clear decision on the membership in the Council of Europe, we will have to take this step (to declare a moratorium on the death penalty - Ed. Note).’
At the same time, European institutions have shown a clear desire to establish closer relations with the Belarusian authorities. One of the steps was taken on 26 May, when PACE’s Political Affairs Committee unanimously decided to restore the Belarusian Parliament’s Special Guest status. The Committee’s Chair Göran Lindblad commented on this decision as follows: ‘We believe that in this way we can promote changes in the country that lacks democracy, the country with a repressive government, the country where there is still the death penalty...’ The official Minsk considered the issue of the restoration of Parliament’s Special Guest status as practically settled. In these circumstances, the issue of the death penalty in Belarus raised at a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 23 June in Strasbourg sounded even more unexpected and acute. Speaking in the debate after Andrea Rigoni’s report, who offered to restore the Special Guest status of the Belarusian Parliament, vice-chairman of the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights Christos Pourgourides put forward a proposal to do so only after declaring a moratorium on the death penalty. Speaking about the importance of this condition, Mr. Pourgourides emotionally stressed: ‘In Belarus, they shoot people, and families of the executed are not given the bodies and not informed, where they had been buried (this is the procedure of a death sentence execution used in Belarus - Ed. Note) According to him, ‘there is still very much work to do’ before restoring the Special Guest status of the Belarusian parliament. ‘In Belarus there are many wrong things going on. While presenting the status, we need to determine certain conditions for the Belarusian authorities’, expressed his belief Mr. Pourgourides. The vast majority of PACE deputies supported this proposal and voted for the adoption of the amendment to the resolution, thus demonstrating that, the EU’s dialogue and concessions by its institutions take more than the Belarusian authorities’ rhetoric - they are expected to take definite and rapid actions to pass a legal decision on the moratorium on the death penalty.
On the same day, 23 June, the Foreign Ministry of Belarus expressed its disappointment over the PACE’s laying down new pre-conditions for restoring the Special Guest status, ‘in particular, regarding a moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus.’ At the same time, the Foreign Ministry said that understood the position of the Council of Europe on the death penalty: ‘There are the necessary consideration and analysis on the issue going on in the Parliament of Belarus, in the legal community of the country, where, no doubt, it is not only the position of the Council of Europe that is taken into account, but the weighty opinion of the citizens of Belarus, which was expressed during the 1996 referendum on the issue.’ The Foreign Ministry’s statement noted that ‘as far as we know, the abolition of the death penalty or a moratorium on its use in accordance with the statutes of the Council of Europe are the conditions for accession to the Organization and not for granting the Special Guest status.’
Vice-Speaker of the House of Representatives Valery Ivanou, representative of the National Assembly of Belarus at the PACE session, after the vote on the Belarusian issue, stated that ‘today a political decision was taken. A legal decision by the PACE Bureau will be taken in the autumn (7 September at a meeting of the PACE Bureau in Paris - Ed. Note). During this time we will work on this issue.’
The Belarusian authorities, having received a clear and unambiguous message – If they really want to see their Parliament in the PACE, they will have to meet the condition of declaring a moratorium on the death penalty – immediately became hyperactive in demonstrating their activities in this direction.
On June 25 the Supreme Court’s Chair Valiantsin Sukala said that the judicial system of Belarus is ready for a moratorium on the death penalty. ‘If the Constitution of Belarus names this exceptional form of punishment as temporary, this rule of law will inevitably lead to its abolition’, he added. Mr. Sukala also suggested that a moratorium on the death penalty should be a kind of an intermediate stage before its abolition, and he considers the measure very real and reasonable. The head of the Supreme Court recalled that in Belarus there is another exceptional form of punishment - life imprisonment. ‘In its gravity and severity it is not much inferior to the death penalty’, he stressed. In the recent years, according to Mr. Sukala, the death penalty has been rarely used in Belarus, ‘so there are no obstacles in terms of the judicial system there.’
On 29 June Viktar Huminski, Chair of the Commission on National Security of the House of Representatives, made a statement that a working group to develop proposals for a moratorium on the death penalty was to be formed at the Belarusian Parliament. The deputy said: ‘My position is that we should get closer to abolishing the death penalty. Not because Europe has put us to the condition, but we ourselves have come to the fact that this question can be put on the agenda. It is inevitable. I think that we soon will have a mature decision to abolish the death penalty without any orders and tips.’ It was expected that the parliamentary working group would be headed by Mr. Huminski himself.
In early July, Siarhei Matskevich, Chair of the House of Representatives’ Committee on International Affairs and the CIS Relations, said that the concerned departments were considering the need to establish a working group to develop proposals for a moratorium on the death penalty. According to him, the establishment of such a group was considered by the Parliament, the Foreign Ministry, the government, the Presidential Administration, courts and prosecutors. ‘If this is an interagency group, it may be large enough, with several people from each agency. The question of a moratorium could be agreed upon before the meeting of the PACE Bureau in September. Theoretically, we can do this by that time (declare a moratorium - Ed. Note).’ Mr. Matskevich also noted that ‘it is not clear yet, whether there is a need for such a group.’
Simultaneously, a campaign of forming public opinion against the death penalty was launched by the state-owned mass media. In early July, the ONT state television channel hosted a talk show with the participation of representatives of the concerned state agencies and human rights activists on the subject. On 30 June the Sovetskaya Belorussia major newspaper held a round table discussion on the humanization of punishment and the death penalty, in particular, which was attended by government officials, the clergy and human rights activists.
Active rhetoric by the Belarusian authorities in this period left no doubt that the issue of a moratorium on the death penalty was on the agenda and could be solved in the near future. However, these expectations were not justified, moreover, against the backdrop of dramatic statements, the Belarusian authorities clearly demonstrated a significant rollback and even a challenge to the European Community: on 29 June and 17 July two new death sentences were passed. All the measures to solve the problem were virtually suspended, no information on preparing for a moratorium was made public, nor was there any information about the establishment of a parliamentary or inter-agency working group . The official Minsk once again demonstrated its unwillingness to compromise on any issues that are exclusively political. The general position of the Belarusian authorities was outlined on 19 October by Aliaksandr Lukashenka, while receiving credentials from ambassadors of 11 countries: ‘Belarus will not take any hasty steps to please Europe before making any decisions on the country ‘, and ‘putting pressure on Belarus is futile.’
Despite the stubborn position of the Belarusian authorities, in this period the European community continued to send positive, but unambiguous signals about the possibility of cooperation. On 11 September the PACE Political Committee’s head Goran Lindblad said that the Special Guest status in PACE could be returned to the Parliament of Belarus by the end of the year if the country abolished the death penalty. ‘I would be happy if they (the Belarusians - Ed. Note) returned to PACE by the end of the year, but it all depends on them.’
On 20 October Jean-Eric Holzapfel, Head of the European Commission’s Office in Minsk, expressed his hope that Belarus would declare a moratorium on the death penalty as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the diplomat noted that it was one of the conditions for the further development of relations with the EU countries and recalled that the moratorium on the death penalty remains one of the paragraphs of the 12 conditions of the EU to improve its relations with Belarus laid down in 2006.
After a long silence, the Belarusian authorities returned to the problem of the death penalty in late 2009.
On 29 November, ahead of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s visit to Belarus, in an interview with La Stampa, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said that an information campaign for the abolition of the death penalty would be launched in Belarus. ‘We decided it a week ago, we are launching a series of activities in this direction, starting with the parliamentary hearings and raising the topic in the media.’ Aliaksandr Lukashenka also mentioned the fact that at the 1996 referendum most people opted for the retention of the penalty and that the decision taken at a referendum could only be cancelled by a new referendum.
Jean-Louis Laurens, Council of Europe's Director General of Democracy and Political Affairs, during his stay in Minsk on 30 November - 1 December, at a press conference after the visit, said that during his meetings with the top officials of Belarus ‘the main issue, which dominated the discussions, was the question of abolishing the death penalty. Today, the abolition of the death penalty is part of the standards and requirements of the Council of Europe. If Belarus wants to join the Council of Europe, to become part of the democratic family, this issue cannot be avoided.’ Jean-Louis Laurens also commented on the death penalty as a condition for the restoration of the Belarusian Parliament’s Special Guest status in PACE: ‘Whatever were our attitude to this, the decision is already taken. There is a need for information campaigns and other actions. And finally, the decision at the political level must be made.’
On 2 October Uladzimir Andreichanka, Speaker of the House of Representatives, at the opening of the third session, said that the possibility of a moratorium on the death penalty or its abolition might be considered at a round table discussion under the auspices of the Council of Europe. According to him, preparations for such a meeting were under way. ‘The opinion of the Belarusian people is essential to develop a balanced approach to such complex issues as a moratorium on the death penalty or its abolition and the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The deputies should continue examining the views of their voters’, said the Speaker. Unfortunately, by the end of the year the intention of the Belarusian MPs remained unfulfilled, ‘the round table’ was not held, while the results of the study of the opinions of voters on these sensitive issues were still unknown to the public.
The reference to ‘popular opinion’ and the results of the 1996 referendum could often be found in the statements by senior government officials, when the issue of the death penalty, a moratorium on it, or its abolition was concerned. On 20 October, the Belarusian Minister of Justice Viktar Halavanau, speaking at the presentation of the results of the project ‘Promote the Wider Application of International Human Rights Standards in the Administration of Justice in Belarus’, said that the declaration of the country's moratorium on the death penalty ‘is under the jurisdiction of the Belarusian people.’ The Minister said: ‘In 1996, the question was put to a referendum. The overwhelming will of the people is known – the declaration of a moratorium is premature. Today, the death penalty is applied in 86 countries of the world, including Japan, most states of the USA. But nobody says that these countries are uncivilized.’ Nevertheless, Mr. Halavanau said that, under a resolution by the Constitutional Court, the country possesses all the necessary legal mechanisms to declare a moratorium on the death penalty. ‘But whether it will be abolished or not, one needs to ask people and the relatives of those murdered: whether they forgave the suffering of their loved ones to offender. I think each country should tackle this issue separately, primarily relying on the will of the people’, the minister added. In his speech, the official appealed to the victims of crimes, and the trend to raise the emotional component of the problem was typical of many statements by Belarusian officials in the year.
The mixed views were expressed by the country’s authorities regarding the possible legal mechanisms for declaring a moratorium. Most of the representatives of the legal community referred in this matter to the resolution Constitutional Court of Belarus of 11 March, 2004 "On the Conformity between the Constitution and International Treaties of the Republic of Belarus and the Provisions of the Criminal Code of Belarus that Provide for the Use of the Death Penalty’, under which a moratorium can be declared, at least as the first step, either by the head of state, i.e. the President, or the Parliament, and, accordingly, it does not require a referendum. The resolution stresses that Paragraph 3 of Art. 24 of the Constitution, which provides for the possibility of the use of the death penalty as an exceptional measure of punishment until its abolition, allows declaring a moratorium on the death penalty or its abolition. The resolution also states that the results of the 1996 referendum, in which the death penalty was voted for by 80.44 % of citizens, have no binding effect.
Therefore, it was especially surprising to hear statements by Chair of the Constitutional Court of Belarus Piotr Miklashevich (in office since 8 February, 2008), who, at a press conference on 11 March, said that the President and the Parliament only could initiate the abolition of the death penalty. ‘The provision for the death penalty is in the first section of the Constitution, which under special protection. Changes and amendments to this section are only possible through a referendum’, said Mr. Miklashevich. He referred to the fact that in 1996 the question of the capital punishment was put to a referendum and more than 80% of the population voted in favour of the preservation of the sentence. Mr. Miklashevich’s position clearly contradicts the Resolution the Constitutional Court adopted in 2004.
On 1 December Jean-Louis Laurens, the Council of Europe’s Director General of Democracy and Political Affairs, said he was confident no referendum was required for a moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus: ‘The political will of the country’s leaders is needed here. For me it is primarily a question of morality. I am first of all guided by the fact that the death penalty is the only form of punishment, which cannot be reversed. Belarus should not abolish the death penalty for the sake of Strasbourg, but for the interest of the country. A referendum on this matter is not mandatory.
Independent experts also believe that a referendum on a moratorium is not required: the Parliament can amend the legislation of the Republic of Belarus, i.e. the Criminal Code, by annulling the punishment, or declaring a moratorium by a Presidential decree.
Support for the death penalty still prevails in public opinion, albeit by a slight majority. According to a national public opinion poll conducted in June 2009 by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the answers to the question ‘Are you for or against the abolition of the death penalty in the Republic of Belarus?’ were as follows: ‘to abolish’ - 41,7%, ‘against the abolition’ - 48,4%. Experts believe the sociological advantage of advocates of the death penalty is primarily conditioned by lack of awareness. It is interesting to note that, as compared to the September 2008 poll, the number of supporters of the death penalty slightly increased: then the abolition of the capital punishment was supported by 44.2 % of respondents and 47,8 % were against it. It is quite possible that the reason for this is exclusively the matter of the politicization of the issue, and that the state media coverage of the death penalty issue was primarily done in terms of the atrocity of the crimes, and was very often overemotional. However, these polls show significant humane views of the citizens of Belarus on the death penalty, and give grounds to assert that the reference to the 1996 referendum data are outdated and do not reflect the real state of public opinion.
Article 24 of the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to life, it also secures the temporary nature of the death penalty: ‘Until its abolition, the death sentence may be applied in accordance with the law as an exceptional penalty for especially grave crimes and only in accordance with the verdict of a court of law.’ The Criminal Code provides for the death penalty for 12 offenses in peacetime and 2 crimes at times of war. Death convicts may apply for clemency to the President. In addition to applications for clemency, the President considers materials of death convicts who do not seek clemency. The petition for a pardon may be filed within 10 days of receipt of a copy of the verdict or the decision of cassation. If the convicted person has not filed in a timely petition for clemency or failed to declare his unwillingness to do so, an act is drawn up. The petition or the act is submitted to the President not later than three days after receiving the application from the convicted person or the act. The sentence is suspended until the petition for pardon or material waiver of application. Petitions for clemency, as well as the materials of the convicts who do not seek clemency before their consideration by the President are dealt with by the President’s Pardon Commission, which holds its meetings at least once in three months. Applications for pardon by persons sentenced to death, or materials of those who refuse to apply for pardon pending before their consideration by the Commission are sent to the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor's Office, which within two weeks present their conclusions on the merits of the decisions of the court, the circumstances of the crimes committed, the data on the convicts, as well as their proposals on the merits of each application or materials of the waivers for application. After the consideration by the Commission, all the materials together with the Commission's proposals are submitted to the President. Decisions to pardon or rejecting the request for clemency are made in the form of Presidential decrees and sent for execution to the Supreme Court. Reports on the implementation of Presidential decrees in respect of persons sentenced to death are sent to the President by the Supreme Court.
Despite the fact that the ‘Regulations on the Exercise of Pardon in the Republic of Belarus’ includes the possibility of inviting representatives of public organizations and the media (Paragraph 9) to the Commission’s meetings and their media coverage (Paragraph 24), their work remains hidden from the public, and above all it concerns cases of those sentenced to death. The only publicly available information was the Commission’s 2003 decision to deny a petition for clemency lodged by two death convicts, when one case was ordered to be reviewed by the Supreme Court in the exercise of supervisory powers, resulting in the death sentence being reduced to 15 years of imprisonment. No other information about the results of the Commission’s work and decisions by the President concerning death convicts is made public.
2 death sentences were delivered in Belarus in 2009 (2008 - 1, 2007 - 4, 2006 - 9, 2005 - 2, 2004 - 2). On 29 June Brest Regional Court sentenced to death a 30-year-old resident of Drahichyn district Vasil Yuzepchuk, who was found guilty of committing a series of murders of elderly women. On 17 July Minsk Regional Court convicted a 25-year-old resident of Salihorsk Andrei Zhuk of murdering two men and sentenced him to death penalty. On 2 October the Supreme Court upheld the verdict to Mr. Yuzepchuk, on 27 October – to Mr. Zhuk. In a conversation with reporters on 19 August, Prosecutor General Ryhor Vasilevich named the death sentences absolutely justified: ‘This measure of responsibility is harsh, but fair. Unless our Criminal Code is not changed in this respect and the Constitution provides for the death penalty.’
The convicted Yuzepchuk and Zhuk lodged petitions for clemency with the President. Vasil Yuzepchuk asked to save his life, insisting that future circumstances may arise that would confirm his innocence. If the sentence is executed, then, in case of an error, it will be impossible to correct it. According to the lawyers who appeared in court in the case of Yuzepchuk, the verdict by Brest Regional Court was built on assumptions, there was no direct evidence, the conviction was primarily based on the testimony by the police. There is evidence that during his detention the pre-trial prison Mr. Yuzepchuk was inflicted injuries, which was recorded. Apart from that, according to the conclusion of an expert panel, the convict suffers a mild mental deficiency, he can poorly orientate himself, he is illiterate. Therefore, there is a very serious concern over the fact that the guilt of the death convict is not proved properly. In the case of Andrew Zhuk, the lawyers also noted that the death penalty was too cruel and unusual punishment because there were certain extenuations: he admitted his guilt, he voluntarily cooperated with investigators and repented of the crime.
With the help of human rights defenders Vasil Yuzepchuk submitted an individual communication on the violation of his rights, including the right to a fair trial and the right to life, to the UN Human Rights Committee. On 12 October, the Committee registered the communication under number 1906/2009 and demanded that Belarus did not execute the death sentence before its consideration on the merits. Andrei Zhuk's mother also submitted a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee, and on 30 October the communication was registered under special procedures under number 1910/2009. In accordance with the special procedures, the Geneva-based office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sent the Republic of Belarus a message about the registration of the communication and a requirement not to execute the death sentence while the case was being considered by the Committee.
The EU and the Council of Europe strongly criticized the death sentences. ‘The delivery of another death penalty in Belarus indicates the urgent need for a moratorium on the death penalty,’ said PACE President Luis Maria de Puig on 4 July, in connection with Yuzepchuk’s conviction. ‘I call upon the Belarusian authorities not to carry the sentence into execution, to take all the necessary measures for the declaration of a moratorium and to demonstrate their willingness to move towards the values and standards of the Council of Europe, and thus make all of us a little closer to the ultimate abolition of the death penalty on the European continent’, said the President. On 3 August the press-service of the European Commission’s office in Minsk issued a statement, which noted that the European Union expressed its grave concern over the imposition of two death penalties in Belarus. The statement stressed that the EU ‘opposes capital punishment in all cases and under all circumstances and has consistently called for its abolition worldwide. The EU is convinced that the abolition of the death penalty is the main element of protection of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights.’ After the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences, a joint statement was made by the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe Samuel Zbogar and the CE Secretary General Terry Thorbjoern Jagland, which called on the Belarusian president to pardon convicts and substitute the death sentences with imprisonment. ‘The act of mercy by the president of Belarus will be an unambiguous signal of Belarus’s intent to join the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, which have suspended or abolished the death penalty’, emphasized the statement.
In 2009, the issue of the death penalty was at the center of attention of the human rights community. The Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee initiated the campaign ‘Human Rights Activists against the Death Penalty’, launched in January with the support of Amnesty International. During the year, legal aid was provided to death convicts, an extensive information campaign was carried out (to the extent possible in Belarus, considering the actual state monopolization of mass media ), press conferences, debates, contests of creative works, mass rallies and other activities were arranged. Providing unbiased information, maintaining free and open public debate on the death penalty in terms of values, humanism, and civilization standards, so that citizens can consciously make their own choices with respect to this complex problem – this was the concept selected by human rights defenders in their work with the society.
The campaign included the drawing up of a special petition to the authorities with a demand to abolish the death penalty in Belarus, signed by more than 30 people – famous cultural and public figures, human rights activists, lawyers and scholars. On 10 December the petition was handed over to the Presidential Administration, its copy being sent to the House of Representatives. On 24 December human rights activists received a response to their appeal from the Chairman of the Commission on National Security of the House of Representatives Viktar Huminski. ‘As you know, this summer PACE restored the Special Guest status to the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus for one year, but on conditions of the declaration of a moratorium on the death penalty,’ said the MP. The information mentioned in the letter does not correspond to reality, and it is obvious that the Chairman of the Parliamentary Commission is not on top of the issue. At the same time, the deputy’s letter demonstrated the readiness of the legislature to address the issue of capital punishment: ‘Belarus has approached the moment to start a detailed, transparent and wide discussion of the issue of abolishing the death penalty in the society. And for this we, the deputies, need a dialogue with the people. It can take different forms. But we will first of all explore the possibility of holding parliamentary hearings on the subject.’ Human rights activists welcomed the MPs’ intention to consider the matter, to establish a dialogue with the people and in their turn encouraged them to hold parliamentary hearings on the issue involving the widest possible range of parties concerned, including Belarusian human rights defenders and representatives of international human rights organizations.
The Belarusian authorities generally did not oppose human rights defenders in carrying out public activities related to informing citizens about the death penalty, but some of them ended up in the detention of their participants. On 5 June, during a performance in downtown Minsk, accompanied by the distribution of informational materials, its participants were arrested for alleged ‘participation in a mass public event’ (they were later released without charges). On 10 October, during an information rally in Navapolatsk marking World Day against the Death Penalty, the police detained the human rights activist Zmitser Salauyou, as well as two youth activists. The detainees were taken to the local police department for proceedings, where an hour later they were released without charges. In many regions the campaign was joined by other civil activists and organizations, especially youth ones. An information rally against the death penalty was held by the Young Front activists on 10 August in Brest, in Hrodna the human rights defenders were joined by youth activists of the BSDP Hramada, the UCPB, the Young Democrats and the Civic Forum.
Human rights activists welcomed the strong position of the European officials with respect to the inadmissibility of the death penalty and the condition laid down by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for a moratorium on the death penalty for the restoration of the Belarusian Parliament’s Special Guest status in PACE, considering this step very symbolic and relevant to the spirit of human rights and European values.
A great contribution to the campaign against the death penalty in Belarus was made by the Amnesty International worldwide human rights organization, whose representatives visited the country twice during the year. On 24 March at a press conference in Minsk, the Europe and Central Asia Programme Director Nicola Duckworth and an AI expert Heather McGill presented a report ‘Stop the Death Penalty in Europe: towards the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Belarus’ and called on the Belarusian authorities to promptly declare a moratorium on the imposition and execution of capital sentences as a first step towards the complete abolition of this form of punishment. Human rights activists expressed their confidence that the country’s people had the right to information on the cases of the use of the death penalty and to a discussion about whether to keep it. During the Amnesty International representatives’ visit to Belarus, they were only received by the officials of the Ministry of Justice, and ignored by the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Presidential Administration. During her visit to Belarus in November, Heather McGill participated in a roundtable discussion on the death penalty, held at the OSCE office. She regarded the willingness of the Belarusian Parliament, the Ministries and the Supreme Court to discuss the issue as positive developments in the Belarusian authorities’ attitude towards the problem. ‘This is a significant step forward. Of course, we believe that this is not enough. We want to see definite steps for a moratorium. Yet, there is hope,’ said the Amnesty International expert.
Thus, in 2009 Belarus failed to demonstrate its political will and did not take decisive steps to abolish the death penalty or declare a moratorium on its use. The death penalty is still used by the Belarusian authorities as an object of political bargaining, human life is not regarded as the supreme value, which cannot be infringed by anyone, including the state.