Human rights defenders strongly protest against expansion of the death penalty in Belarus
Joint statement by the Belarusian human rights community
March 28, 2023
On March 25, 2023, the Law "On Amendments to the Criminal Liability Codes" came into effect, which once again expanded the scope of the death penalty over the last year. The amendments to Article 356 of the Criminal Code provide for the death penalty for high treason committed by a responsible official, an official holding a public office, or a military officer.
Earlier, on April 27, 2022, the Criminal Code was amended to provide for the death penalty for certain attempted crimes.
In connection with the further extension of the scope of the death penalty, we consider it necessary to draw attention to the following circumstances.
Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Republic of Belarus is a party, provides that the death penalty may be imposed only for the most serious crimes. The Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment No. 36, clarified that the term "the most serious crimes" must be interpreted restrictively and refers only to the most serious crimes involving intentional killing. The Committee also emphasized that while state parties are not obliged to abolish the death penalty, they are obliged to limit its use, not expand it.
We note that no clear justification for expanding the use of the death penalty has been presented to the public. The National Assembly's commentary suggests that such changes are being introduced "to deter destructive elements and demonstrate the determination to combat high treason". We reiterate the position of human rights organizations that it is not the severity of the punishment, but its inevitability that is a deterrent to the commission of crimes.
We recall that the Republic of Belarus is the only country in Europe that applies the death penalty. We are particularly concerned about the possibility of the death penalty being used as a mechanism of political repression and intimidation to stifle freedom of expression and open dissent against the current government. An example of the politically motivated use of Article 356 of the Criminal Code (“High Treason”) is the conviction of Dzianis Urad, a captain in the Belarusian Armed Forces, who was sentenced to 18 years for providing vital information about the use of the armed forces to suppress peaceful protests in Belarus in 2020.
We wish to emphasize the inadmissibility of the use and threat of the death penalty as an instrument of political pressure and express our concern about possible abuses by the Belarusian authorities, in particular its arbitrary application.
On the basis of the above, and reaffirming our position of May 6, 2022, we demand that the Belarusian authorities:
- repeal the provisions of the Criminal Code that provide for the possibility of the death penalty for non-violent crimes, as well as for attempts to commit certain types of crimes, and that are inconsistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
- adhere strictly to its international human rights obligations and ensure respect for the right to life;
- seek the complete abolition of the death penalty, rather than expanding its scope as set forth in international human rights standards.
We also call on the international community to condemn the amendments to the Criminal Code and to promote its abolition.
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Human Rights Center Viasna
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House