Death penalty in Belarus in the context of global justice. Is abolition possible?
Killings on behalf of the government used to be much more common than they are now. There are moral reasons for giving up the death penalty. Many people agree that even though, for some criminals, the death penalty seems like a just punishment, it is not unjust to punish those criminals less harshly. A prevailing number of professionals argue that there is no good reason to believe that the death penalty is needed to prevent future murders. By imposing the death penalty on murderers, the state does not reduce the number of such criminals. On the contrary, the state that imposes capital punishment creates a vivid example that increases the public's tolerance to cruelty and violence. Arguably, such practice makes people more cruel and violent (Pojman, L.P. and Reiman, J.H.; 1998). These considerations have led the global society to condemn the death penalty.
Despite the international community largely agreeing that the death penalty should be eliminated, there are many countries that still have it. Belarus is one of the industrialized western countries where the death penalty is a legal punishment. It is imposed in exceptional cases to punish some criminals whose crimes involve violent murders. In some instances, non-violent crimes can also be punished by death. There are traits of the capital punishment specific to Belarus as an authoritarian state. For instance, the way the executions go on is shrouded in secrecy. The convicts face mistreatment at all stages of their persecution: they confess the crimes under torture or psychological pressure, the courts that judge them lack independence, their only hope to stay alive is a pardon from Lukashenka. After getting the sentence, the convicts or their families do not know when they will be killed. The convicts’ families are denied meetings with them. After the executions the convicts’ remains “vanish” (Savchuk, A.; 2016). Belarus is effectively the only country in Europe to still have the death penalty.
The death penalty in Belarus is a relevant and urgent Global Justice issue, as the global community represented by international institutions can push the state in Belarus towards abolition. Recently the security officials of Belarus hijacked an international flight and abducted the journalist Roman Protasevich off the plane (Troianovski, A., Nechepurenko, I.; 2021). The state hijacking of an international plane vividly displayed the state’s ruthlessness and instability. Roman Protasevich perceived his arrest as a possible life threat, as Lukashenka erratically bragged about his intent to subject the journalist to the death penalty by transferring him to the insurgent fighters in Donbass, Ukraine (Carroll, O.; 2021). Lukashenka’s idea to send Roman abroad was a bizarre and far-fetched scheme. Nevertheless, the regime’s outstanding willingness to condemn opponents to the death penalty could serve as a signal for the international community to strengthen the pressure on Belarus in the direction of abolition. It is justified to push the unstable regime that parades its violence and ignorance towards the abolition of capital punishment unless its citizens condone it. It is first important to know whether Belarusians agree that the death penalty should be abolished; if so, what bearing does the public have on the decision? If the death penalty were abolished in Belarus, what would be the trigger for the change?
The history of the death penalty in Belarus
The USSR used to have the death penalty. With the dissolution of the USSR, Belarus became a sovereign state and kept the method of punishment, with the public seemingly approving of it. In 1996 a referendum showed that only 17.83% (a little over one million) of Belarusians replied to the question, "Do you support the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus?" in the positive. The government officials cite this result when justifying keeping the death penalty. Internationally, the referendum result was not recognized because of low voting integrity (Bachega, H.; 2018).
Even though the death penalty is a legal punishment in Belarus, it is surrounded with mystery. The state institutions keep the information about capital punishments secret. Since 1996, hundreds of executions have taken place but it is not possible to know how many people get killed on behalf of the government. The estimation that an abolitionist Belarusian group gives is “a bit over 400 executions” (Savchuk, A.; 2016). The only way the public gets to learn about such cases is from the relatives of the convicted. Furthermore, there are other aspects of the capital punishments that are traditionally kept secret. Usually, the convict would wait between 4 months and a year until his punishment, although there is no indication of the exact amount of waiting time for the convicts on death row in the books. Finally, the authorities refuse to hand over the remains of those executed to their relatives and do not disclose the place of burial.
Since 2000, the number of executions per year have gone down considerably, staying at about five executions per year, except for nine executions in 2006, when the court in Homel prosecuted a powerful criminal gang. A controversial case happened in 2011, after the terrorist attack in the Minsk subway that took the lives of 15 passengers. The court deemed Vladislav Kovalev and Dmitry Konovalov guilty and imposed the death penalty on them. The human rights defenders argued that the investigation was hasty; furthermore, it had numerous flaws and mistakes. As it is normal for the Belarusian judiciary, the investigation was secretive and non-transparent. Vladislav Kovalev, in particular, did not admit his responsibility for the attack and appealed for a pardon. Lukashenka denied Kovalev's appeal citing "the exceptional danger and harshness of the consequences to the society from the committed crime." The sentences were based on the testimony of the suspects themselves, who, many argue, were under pressure, including torture (Melnichuk, T. and Yanutsevich, T.; 2020). It is not uncommon for the Belarusian courts to make decisions under the influence of higher authorities. Therefore, there are still doubts about whether or not Kovalev and Konovalov's prompt executions were a way for the government to boost its popularity with a show of quick retaliation after a tragedy.
The inhumane nature of the death penalty in Belarus causes the public as well as the international community to condemn it. In modern Belarus, those sentenced to death are kept in prison No. 1, also known as the Pishchalovsky Castle, in the very heart of Minsk. On the day of the execution, the convict is ushered through an underground passage, and they read out the act of refusal to pardon. They specify his info, blindfold him and bring him to his knees. They carry out the death penalty by firing a single shot in the back of the head from a pistol. In addition to the executioner, a prosecutor and a doctor are present in the cell. The executions are usually done at night so that other prisoners cannot identify the executioners or start a riot (Savchuk, A.; 2016). There are grounds to believe that the public opinion on the death penalty has changed greatly since 1996. Despite this fact, the government is not in a hurry to stop the executions. This leads one to believe that to Lukashenka the public opinion on the executions has less than a primary importance. There must be other reasons for him to keep the death penalty intact.
History of abolition in France and the U.S.
In his paper, Moshik Temkin examines the possible reasons the death penalty still lives in the United States. He discusses the striking divide between what he sees as the prevailing view on capital punishment of the western industrialized countries and the US. He compares two countries – the United States and France – and argues that their differences are contingent on the different histories, meanings, and practical applications of abolition (Temkin, 2015). In France, the abolition was a political, top-down process originating from the elite in the face of ongoing public support for executions. There, abolition was framed in normative terms. Abolitionists in France portrayed executions as a whole contrary to the principles of human dignity and civilized society. By contrast, abolitionists in the US frame abolition as a legal (as opposed to political) effort and a procedural (as opposed to moral) cause.
Many other European countries followed the French trajectory. After France abolished the death penalty in 1981, the process spread to the east, where, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly independent states gave up executing convicts. A different process started at the supranational level, as capital punishment gained a normative framing as a human rights violation. Undoubtedly, the rise of international human rights law played a crucial role in national abolitions. Today, abolition is considered a requirement for meeting the standards of international human rights law.
International institutions push Belarus to abolish the inhumane form of punishment, without much success. Various international organizations regularly condemn the use of capital punishment, including the Council of Europe and PACE, which the Republic of Belarus cannot accede for this reason. Many human rights organizations demand that Belarus abolishes the death penalty or imposes a moratorium on its use. Since 1992, Belarus has been a party to the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which gives the UN Human Rights Committee the right to consider individual complaints from persons convicted by a Belarusian court. The Committee has the right to appeal to the Belarusian authorities to postpone the execution of the death sentence. In 2012, it ruled that the use of capital punishment in Belarus violates the rights of convicts and their relatives. However, despite the protests of the Committee's representatives, the Belarusian authorities carry out even those death sentences, complaints about which are still pending before the Committee. For example, in 2014, P. Selyun and A. Grunov were executed in Belarus, even though they had submitted complaints to the Committee. The latter asked the Belarusian authorities to postpone the execution of their sentences. In October 2015, the Committee ruled that the 2010 execution of V. Yuzepchuk was a violation of his right to life; the prosecution obtained his confession of guilt in the crime under torture. The trial itself, which ended with his death sentence, did not meet the criteria of independence and impartiality.
There is little ground to believe that the judiciary could aid the abolition of the death penalty. Lawyers and judges, like the whole judicial system in Belarus, generally lack independence. The Ministry of Justice is in charge of organizing qualification exams, initiating disciplinary proceedings against lawyers, and suspending their activities in misconduct cases. In addition, it is empowered to control lawyers in every way. At the same time, Belarusian laws violate the principle of judicial independence. Indeed, the executive plays a crucial role in the appointment of judges and has the authority to initiate disciplinary proceedings against them, including their removal from office. Lukashenka, having power over the government institutions, has repeatedly stated his approval of capital punishment (FIDH and HRC “Viasna” report; 2016).
Twenty-five years after the 1996 referendum, human rights defenders and independent journalists claim that public opinion on the issue has changed. Public outcry at the case of Kovalev and Konovalov in 2011 changed the prevailing attitude to the death penalty. The latest independent opinion polls suggest that nearly half of Belarusians support the immediate or gradual abolition of the death penalty in Belarus. Despite a possibility of a change in the public opinion on the death penalty, the government keeps referring to the 1996 referendum. Therefore, the reason the death penalty stays has little to do with what Belarusians want and believe.
In 2004, the Constitutional Court of Belarus established that it is not mandatory to call a referendum to abolish the death penalty. However, the authorities have done little to abolish the death penalty or to prepare for a transition. They do little to fix the core reasons for high rates of grave crimes, namely domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and poverty. Instead, in 2020, the government established within the Parliament of Belarus a working group to study the death penalty. The working group did not abolish the death penalty but instead participated in various talk shows, seminars, and round tables (FIDH an HRC ”Viasna” report; 2016).
Since August 2020, many things have happened that could have a bearing on the death penalty issue in Belarus. In today's Belarus, many instruments of political change are dangerous and highly costly due to the regime's repressions against any political opponents. The total number of persons targeted in criminal cases during the election campaign of 2020 and the post-election period has reached 1,000 persons. More than 33,000 individuals have been detained and faced politically grounded prosecutions in the same period. By the time, I am writing this text, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” has obtained more than a thousand testimonies of police-related torture and abuse. There are currently 586 political prisoners in Belarus. It is clear that political participation is not attainable for most Belarusians and their opinion has little effect on Belarusian politics. When it comes to the penal system, the problem seems even worse, as it is exactly by the cruelty of the legal sentences that Lukashenka hopes to preserve his political power.
After the state hijacking of the Ryanair flight to Vilnius it should have become clear that the government of Belarus is unstable and is ready to use violence to terrorize the dissidents (Troianovski, A. and Nechepurenko, I.; 2021). The growing number of political prisoners in Belarus suggests Lukashenka’s motive to stifle the disapproving voices by using or threatening violence against them. The capital punishment, being the ultimate violent legal punishment that the state can impose, serves as a permanent discouragement for anyone opposing Lukashenka in public. Even though Belarus may be one of the industrialized modern societies that opposes killing on behalf of the state, the fact that it is still under a dictatorial rule makes it unlikely to give up the death penalty in the near future. It seems that Belarus would likely follow the footsteps of France’s abolitionist movement, had it not been “the last dictatorship in Europe”.
The death penalty is a legal punishment in Belarus and is likely to remain such for a while. The government officials have little incentive to break the vicious cycle of violent punishments in the Belarusian legal practice. The civil society of Belarus has minimal opportunity to meaningfully participate in politics, apart from engaging in the public discourse. Thus, the public’s opinion on the death penalty will not prompt the government to change the capital punishment legislation, even though that opinion may be strictly negative. This is because Lukashenka has a particular interest in preserving the death penalty as a deterrent for his opponents.
Comparing the situation in Belarus with other countries is tricky because of Belarus’s uniqueness as a dictatorship in Europe with the death penalty. In this essay, I mentioned some analysis about the death penalty in France and the United States. France gave it up for ethical reasons - the elites initiated the process by deeming executions contrary to the principles of the civilized society. In the United States, the decision-making is decentralized and spread out to decision-makers across states, which complicates the complete abolition in all states. In Belarus, the government bodies are centered in the only city where the executions are carried out - Minsk. Despite this fact and the wide-spread condemnation of the death penalty by the international community and the Belarussian citizens, the death penalty persists due to Lukashenka’s vested interest to preserve it. The government and the state are unable or unwilling to initiate the process of change towards a death-penalty free future. To deal with this issue, actions by institutions outside the Republic of Belarus are necessary.
In the meantime, the international community represented by global institutions should continue pressuring the Belarussian government by imposing trade sanctions. These measures give hope for the amnesty of the political prisoners, lessening the grip of the security forces on the civilians and the discontinuation of torture and executions of convicts. Of course, these measures cannot solve the death penalty issue in Belarus directly, but they may provide additional pressure on the state institutions to initiate change. Furthermore, the civil society of Belarus should continue being outspoken about the repressions and the human rights abuses by supporting the abolitionist cause. There is research to be done to compare Belarus to other post-Soviet republics that managed to abolish the death penalty. Unfortunately, it was not the scope of this essay, but I am looking forward to reading on this issue.
- Bachega, H., 2018, Belarus: the secret executions in Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43799280
- FIDH and HRC “Viasna” joint report, 2016, Death Penalty in Belarus: Murder on (Un)lawful grounds, retrieved from https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CAT/Shared%20Documents/BLR/INT_CAT_CSS_BLR_30786_E.pdf
- Melnichuk, T. and Yantsevich, T.; 2020, “One man’s will.” How executions happen in Belarus and what happens to the families of the convicts. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-52647411
- Pojman, L.P. and Reiman, J.H., 1998, The Death Penalty : For and Against. Point/Counterpoint. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Savchuk, A., 2016, Territory of the death penalty. How it happens in Belarus. Retrieved from http://spring96.org/ru/news/85246
- Temkin, M., 2015, The Great Divergence: The Death Penalty in the United States and the Failure of Abolition in Transatlantic Perspective, Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series, RWP15-037
- Troianovski, A. and Nechepurenko, I., 2021, Belarus Forces Down Plane to Seize Dissent; Europe Sees State “State Hijacking”. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/23/world/europe/ryanair-belarus.html?searchResultPosition=20
 Lukashenko brandishes prospect of death sentence for blogger Roman Protasevich. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/world/lukashenko-roman-protasevich-death-penalty-b1858382.html