The death penalty. Burial of executed prisoners.

Leanid Sudalenka
Leanid Sudalenka

Liudmila Mikhalkova, Chair of the Standing Committee on Legislation of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly, believes that there is no need to change the legislation which prohibits issuing the bodies of the executed prisoners to their relatives for burial. Human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka, Chairman of the Homel branch of the NGO “Legal Initiative”, disagrees with the MP.

Welcoming in general the efforts of the high-ranking official to analyze the existing legislation on the raised issue, Leanid Sudalenka categorically disagrees with her conclusions.

“Liudmila Mikhalkova, former Chair of the Homel Regional Court, concluded that the prohibition on issuing the bodies for burial “aims at ensuring public safety and security, public order, health or morals, the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”, i.e. it is acceptable from the point of view of the Constitution and from the point of view of the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights.

“As for the MP’s opinion on the admissibility of a ban on issuing bodies for burial, this conclusion is refuted by a number of cases that were considered by the UN Human Rights Committee, in particular No. 886/1999 Bandarenka v. Belarus, No. 887/1999 Liashkevich v. Belarus, No. 2120/2011 Liubou Kavaliova and Tatsiana Kaziar v. Belarus. The Committee said that the “the secrecy surrounding the date of execution and the place of burial, and the refusal to hand over the bodies for burial, had the effect of intimidating or punishing families by intentionally leaving them in a state of uncertainty and mental distress”.

In all these cases, the Committee said that the bans on issuing the bodies for burial were inadmissible and ordered the Republic of Belarus to notify the families of the location of their sons’ graves, as well as to prevent similar violations in the future. Liudmila Mikhalkova failed to comment on these decisions of international experts, although we focused on these aspects of the matter in our letter to the MP.

Furthermore, we should also be aware of the history of this issue. In 1924, there appeared an order on executions, which proposed to prevent the issuance of the body of an executed person to anyone, but to bury it “without any ritual and so that no traces were left”. This tradition is long-lasting. For example, the execution of persons convicted in 1937-1938 under the infamous Article 58 of the Criminal Code (so called “counter-revolutionary activity”) was reported to their families by a phrase of “ten years in the camps without the right of correspondence”. Then the secrecy was justified by the fact that many prisoners brutally tortured before being shot and the government favored concealing the traces of these crimes.

The tradition had roots in the Tsarist Russia. In the Russian Empire, bodies of those executed were not given for burial, as the authorities feared that the graves of political criminals could become a place of worship for opponents of the regime.

China, the country with the greatest number of executions, does not allow handing over the bodies to relatives. Recently, China’s political elite partly explained the tradition by a need to remove the death convicts’ organs for transplantation. There are other examples of solving the problem: according to Amnesty International, the United States provides the right to claim the body.

Belarus executes 2-3 death verdicts a year, which, in addition to members of the firing squad, are witnessed by the prosecutor and the doctor whose job is to document the death. Belarus now lacks the conditions that gave rise to the tradition of hiding the burial places and bodies of executed prisoners, but the practice continues to exist.

“After the execution, the bodies are packed in plastic bags and buried. The places the burial are a secret. I can only say that these are nameless graves. We left no plates, knobs, twigs or other signs of burial,” said Aleh Alkayeu, former head the firing squad in Minsk’s jail No. 1, in his book “Firing Squad”.


Book «Capital punishment in Belarus»


Death verdics in Belarus since 1990