FIDH expert: “There were just us and the dogs in the courtroom!”
On October 5, the Minsk Press Club hosted the presentation of a joint report on the death penalty in Belarus, which was prepared by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Human Rights Center "Viasna".
The presentation of the report entitled "Death Penalty in Belarus: Murder on (Un)Lawful Grounds" opened a series of events scheduled within the annual Week against the Death Penalty.
Jim Couzens, Deputy Head of European Union’s Mission in Belarus, said in his speech that the death penalty is an important issue that can ‘stir up emotions’, just like any other matter of life and death.
“The main argument against the death penalty is that people make mistakes: it can be a judge, a prosecutor, a policeman. But people make mistakes, we are all human, and this can result in an innocent person being killed, and it’s irreversible,” he said.
Mr. Couzens said that modern techniques have repeatedly helped prove that innocent people were killed.
“I very much hope that Belarus can join the family of its neighbors, across the whole of former CIS countries, the whole of Europe and have a moratorium on the death penalty, and even better its abolition,” said he.
He stressed that more countries abolished the death penalty this year, including Fiji, Madagascar, Congo, Suriname, Guinea and Mongolia. And there is no reason that could prevent Belarus from joining these countries.
“I hope that the execution carried out in April and the death sentence pronounced in May will be the last ones in Belarus. But it is very regrettable that yesterday the case of Vostrykau was upheld by an appeals court. We are very saddened about that. And yesterday the EU in Brussels put up a statement complaining about the decision.”
Jim Couzens said that the European Union and EU Member States were going to provide all necessary assistance to Belarus in order to help the country abolish the death penalty.
Florence Bellivier, Deputy Secretary General of FIDH and former president of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told about yesterday’s hearing at the Supreme Court:
“Although I have been working on the death penalty for 16 years, yesterday was the first time that I attended a hearing of a death verdict. There are a lot of things to say about this trial, but I just want to stress the fact that I can’t understand why the system of justice needs to have the convicted person walking like a dog, handcuffed, with his head on the knees, being held in a cage in the courtroom. Besides the fact that the person was treated like an animal, there were real animals in the corridor, the dogs, with no muzzles on their faces, so that they can bite that person if needed,” said she.
At the same time, Ms. Bellivier stressed that Belarus has legal tools, which could help it abolish the death penalty. These tools include Article 24 of the Constitution, as well as the country’s civil society, whose activists tirelessly tell about the death penalty in different European cities, Oslo, Paris, Madrid.
“Retentionist states stress that the death penalty is not prohibited on the international level. This is a very simplistic approach, which ignores the following three facts:
Over the last 40 years a very powerful abolitionist movement has developed and today more than 2/3 of the countries in the world are abolitionist, either in law or in practice.
Even if the death penalty is not prohibited by a legal binding international instrument, except for the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the binding legal instruments that Belarus is part of recommend a very strict use of the death penalty.
The death penalty is not an isolated phenomenon in a sense that a country could maintain it quietly and, at the same time, be without reproach from the perspective of its international obligations.
More precisely, Belarus violates the right to life, the right to information, the right to a fair trial and adherence to procedures at all stages, the right to appeal, and the prohibition of inhuman treatment and torture,” the FIDH representative said.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry clearly stated that the decisions of the Un Human Rights Committee in cases of Belarusian citizens are not binding. As a result, Belarusian authorities continue executing people while their complaints are pending before the Committee, a structure in charge of supervising the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified Belarus.
“The persistence of the death penalty in Belarus is not a fatality or a curiosity, it is a question of political will of the state, or bad will, which is deliberately keeping its citizens in ignorance about this cruel and irreversible form of punishment. So an execution is not a solution,” Bellivier said.
Sasha Koulaeva, Head of FIDH’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk, told about the Federation’s fact-finding mission that worked in Belarus in June this year:
“I must say that for us the mission ended yesterday, when we attended a hearing at the Supreme Court, where another death sentence was confirmed. This gave a very vivid picture of all that we have been doing in recent months. The conditions in which this action takes place are terrible, no matter what happens in essence. A terrible ritual and a terrible thing to witness. It’s the condition of the victim's mother, whose fate seems to be indifferent to the state and the judiciary, as well as the fate of the murderer. All of them are in a terrible mental state, all this is happening with the guards and the dogs around, and suggests the saddest memories and historical parallels.”
The experts who met with the families of convicts and executed prisoners, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, received a lot of first-hand evidence and came to the conclusion that violations accompany the death penalty from the very beginning (detention, first interrogation, investigation, first trial , second trial, appeal, requests for clemency) to the end (execution and what happens after it, because for families the story does not end after the execution).
“If international law does not prohibit the death penalty, it in any way allows the use of such measures in an environment where the whole process can be questioned from the beginning to the end. This includes the possibility of a judicial error and the lack of independence of the judiciary. The risk of an unfair sentence, as it has been repeatedly emphasized today, is particularly evident in the condition of a dependent judicial system,” Koulaeva said.
She emphasized separately the question of access to information, which is subdivided into three levels. First, information for the person who has been sentenced to death, who learns that he will be shot and that his request for pardon he has been refused only at the moment of the execution, which leads to psychological torture at all times while waiting for execution.
The second level is what happens with the relatives of the convicts, as their access to information is limited at all times. Numerous evidence gathered in the report shows that people often do not have the possibility of correspondence.
“People live without knowing if their loved one is still alive or has been already shot. And we see it as a terrible symbol that they send by mail the personal belongings of executed persons, when the mother, not even knowing about the shooting of her son, receives his clothes and shoes, and this must suggest that her son no longer exists. In this regard, the UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly stressed the violation of the rights not only of those executed, but also their families, who are going through all this torture,” Sasha Koulaeva said.
And the third level is public awareness of what is happening in the country in relation to the death penalty.
“The report constantly emphasizes that even information about the number of sentences and executions is fragmentary and is only available through the work of human rights defenders, including the activists of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus”, and journalists who seek this information. Especially absurd in this context are the statements by the Belarusian authorities that the death penalty is necessary to reduce the level of crime. But if you hide information from the public, then what can be said?
What struck us yesterday besides the ritual of brining the convict to the room at the Supreme Court was that there were just four of us: our mission, and the victim’s mother. There were no journalists, there was no audience, there were no lawyers, no other judges. There were just us and the dogs! This is indicative of the state of the judicial system and society,” said the speaker.
Sasha Koulaeva believes that informing society about the death penalty is necessary so that the society could have a different and more balanced attitude to the death penalty and to the practice of executions:
“If we want to have a grassroots decision on the need to abolish the death penalty, then we should have free media, should have registered organizations that are fighting for the abolition of the death penalty, they must have a status that would allow them to communicate with public bodies and international organizations on this subject, the public should have access to information. As yet, none of these three factors can be observed in Belarus. And now, at this very moment, not far from here people are waiting for death in inhuman conditions.”
“We are making every effort possible so that the question of the death penalty has become history. And the report is one of the tools to ensure that the information on the subject reaches our citizens and the authorities as quickly as possible. We also raise this issue in the international arena, an example of which may be my an open letter to the Pope, who was handed over to him last week during a private audience with Tamara Chikunova, our guest of honor at the events of the Week against the Death Penalty in Belarus. Pope Francis said when receiving the message that he would consider the question, and we have great hopes regarding this,” said Andrei Paluda, coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus”.