Though the EU lifted its sanctions against Belarus in early 2016, the authorities seem to remain reluctant to address a moratorium on capital punishment, Lizaveta Kasmach writes.
On 10 March 2016, Minsk hosted an international conference titled The Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide.
According to Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, a moratorium on the death penalty would send a positive signal for relations between Belarus and the EU and improve the international image of Belarus.
The existence of the death penalty has contributed to the pariah image of Belarus – it lost its guest status at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) after the 1996 referendum, when more than 80 per cent of the population voted in favour of maintaining capital punishment.
Currently, Belarus remains the only European state in which the authorities continue to execute criminals convicted of serious offences.
The EU's recent lifting of sanctions has created a window of opportunity for the improvement of relations with the EU in all spheres. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty appears to be an easy yet important symbolic step for sealing rapprochement with the EU and demonstrating Belarusian good will. Yet while public opinion shifts more towards accepting the moratorium, the government appears to be treating the death penalty issue as a bargaining chip.
Dark secrets of death row
Currently, 14 articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code foresee capital punishment as one of the available penalty options. These include war crimes, genocide, international terrorism, use of weapons of mass destruction and various categories of serious crimes, including murder. The Belarusian Interior Ministry has also pointed out that those Belarusians who signed up as mercenaries in Ukraine could be accused of committing crimes against the humanity and potentially face the death penalty.
According to the Ministry of Justice, Belarusian courts have handed down death sentences to over 300 people since 1990. Yet the transparency and availability of information leave a lot to be desired.
For instance, official statistical information on the website of the Interior Ministry is not up-to-date, reflecting only the numbers of death penalties carried out between 1998 and 2010. According to officially released information, over the last decade the average number of executions ranged from between 2 to 9 people per year.
The government keeps all procedures secret and neither society nor the families of the convicted know what has happened to them after they hear their verdict. One of the few sources of information available to the public is the book The Death Squad by the former chief of the Minsk detention centre Aleh Alkaeu, who used to be in charge of executions.
The most infamous case in recent years featured Uladzislau Kavaliou and Dzmitry Kanavalau, found guilty of organising explosions in the Minsk subway on 11 April 2011. Both were promptly tried and convicted before the year was out. Resonance of the case and the haste with which the trail was organised resulted in the first serious instance of public debate on capital punishment, exacerbated by growing distrust of the judicial system.
Lukashenka and public opinion: pros and cons
With regard to the issue of the death penalty, President Alexander Lukashenka persistently refers to the results of the notorious 1996 November referendum, when 80 per cent of voters refused to abolish the death penalty. Therefore, the president has typically maintained that as “a servant of the people, who knows the popular mood” he has no power to force society to accept a moratorium.
Yet his recent statements on the death penalty indicate some potential for a change of heart. On 9 March 2016, the president noted that Belarus has developed “its own interpretation of humanitarian issues, including on the question of human rights.” He tied progress in the sphere of human rights to the economic situation, hinting that changes in public opinion depended on the material well-being of the people. In other words, the death penalty would be abolished if the EU provided an economic incentive.
According to a 2013 survey carried out by Penal Reform International, 37 per cent of Belarusians did not know that Belarus still employed the death penalty. Belarusian civil society actors, including the Helsinki Committee and the human rights organisation Viasna with the support of the EU institutions, engage in information campaigns to raise public awareness on the issue.
Gradually, these efforts are creating a potential shift in public opinion. The president’s reminders that 80 per cent of the population is in favour of the death penalty sound less and less credible. According to a sociological survey conducted by the consulting company SATIO in cooperation with Penal Reform International and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee in 2014, the number of death penalty opponents for the first time exceeded those supporting it, with 43.3 per cent against versus 41.9 per cent in favour.
Opponents are convinced that the death penalty is not an effective means of punishment. According to IISEPS opinion polls, these people are more social responsible, are tolerant towards minorities and tend to oppose the current political regime. On the contrary, supporters of the death penalty are more likely to trust the police and state authorities.
Capitalizing on the death penalty moratorium?
On 5 January 2016, the Minsk Regional Court handed down the first death sentence of the new year. Genadz’ Jakavitski from Vileika was tried and convicted for the cruel murder of his girlfriend. On 15 February another verdict of a certain "Kh." followed.
The EU promptly expressed its concerns, urging the Belarusian authorities to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty and to encourage public debate on the issue. Since the EU lifted its sanctions against Belarus in February 2016, governing circles have started to show some willingness to co-operate with their EU counterparts.
On 10 March 2016, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) hosted an international conference titled The Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide. Despite acknowledging the need to launch a broad dialogue about capital punishment, Belarusian organizers requested that journalists be removed from the conference venue following the official opening ceremony. The unregistered human rights organisation Viasna, known for its active position on the issue of the death penalty, was not invited to participate.
These circumstances throw a shadow of doubt over the government's commitment to a genuine dialogue. The authorities remain reluctant to address a moratorium on capital punishment. It is also likely that the president is unwilling to relinquish the absolute symbolic power he holds over the lives and deaths of Belarusian citizens.
However, the main issue appears to be in the practical realm of politics. Recent statements by Lukashenka specifically point to the connection between human rights issues and the economic well-being of the population. For now, the Belarusian regime is attempting to raise the stakes in what it perceives to be a trade process with the EU. It hopes to sell the death penalty moratorium for the highest possible price.