13 September 1999

Russia and the Death Penalty

On 3 June 1999, Boris Yeltsin signed a decree commuting the death sentence of 713 prisoners held in a special camp near to Vologda. Their sentence was reduced to either life or 25 years in prison. However, although the death penalty was abolished de facto by this decree, it still remains part of the Penal Code.

Russia’s commitments to the European Council

On joining the European Council on 28 February 1996, Russia made a commitment to establish a moratorium on capital punishment and to abolish the death penalty. Russia also agreed to ratify the 6th protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights within three years, that is, before the end of February 1999.

Between January and August 1996, 53 of those sentenced to death were executed. Since the moratorium on executions was established in August 1996, no further death sentences have been carried out. Moreover, in February 1999, the Constitutional Court decided to suspend all death sentences until an Assize Court had been created with a people’s jury (only nine out of 89 Russian regions currently have a court of appeal).

Boris Yeltsin’s decree can be explained in part by the fact that, on the same day, a conference was held in Moscow organised by the Commission on Presidential Pardons. It was attended by representatives of the European Council who, despite the pardons being made public, repeatedly expressed their concern that the decree of pardon in no way carried with it the abolition of the death penalty. «This decision is an important step which goes far beyond the current moratorium» his secretary general, Daniel Tarschish, maintained, adding that «the next most logical step would be to abolish capital punishment from the Penal Code».

Strong opposition from Parliament and public opinion in order to remove the death sentence from Russian law definitively, there would have to be a vote in favour of doing so in the Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament. In the past the deputies in the Duma, dominated by a communist majority, have always refused to vote for the abolition of the death penalty. And in April 1997, when the Russian government signed the 6th protocole to the European Human Rights Convention, the Duma refused to ratify it.

«The citizens of this country are not in favour of abolishing the death penalty», was the view, in February 1999, of the leader of the Communist Party, Genadi Zyuganov, who considered it premature to abolish capital punishment. Likewise, Alexander Lebed, governor of Krasnoiarsk, believes that to abolish the death penalty would be equivalent to «destroying a vaccine when there’s an epidemic» and declares himself in favour of cancelling the moratorium on executions.

It is true that Russian opinion seems largely against abolishing the death penalty. According to the last survey on this issue, carried out in December by the survey institute «Public Opinion» [1], 64 per cent of Russians are opposed to the abolition of the death penalty, while 25 per cent are in favour. Among members of the Communist Party, the number of those who support capital punishment is even higher, with 74 per cent for and 16 per cent against. With six months to go before the elections, it is unlikely that the Duma will take this issue on board. It is a good idea, however, to exercise a certain amount of caution when reading the results of surveys, especially considering the level of insecurity that currently prevails in Russia and the degree of impunity enjoyed by organised criminals.

The 3 June decree : a mere digression ?

Those in favour of abolition are comparatively few. The new Prime Minister, Sergei Stepachin, who was Minister for Justice until August 1998, has declared himself in favour of abolition on several occasions, but his government does not seem to be in a position to get it through Parliament. Likewise, Anatoli Pristavkin, a writer, Human Rights activist and President of the Commission on Pardons, admits that he has never been able to persuade a deputy to vote in favour of abolition. All of this means that the presidential decree of 3 June simply adds a little more time to the period of reprieve established in August 1996 by the moratorium on capital executions. There are very stong reasons to doubt the assertion that all those sentenced to death are covered by this decree. Last April, according to the Minister for Justice [2] , more than 1,000 prisoners were waiting to be executed. In all likelihood, all those who have been forgotten by the presidential decree risk being executed when Boris Yeltsin’s mandate is over.

FIDH urges the Russian authorities at the highest level to take all the necessary steps to ensure full compliance with the pledges made by Russia when she joined the European Council.

Footnotes :

1. AFP International, 3 June 1999.

2. Radio Free Europe Watchlist, 10 June 1999.
Last Update 13 September 2004
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