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Death penalty: Belarus must be accountable to someone

Belarus is the last country in Europe to apply the death penalty. It often does so in secret. 

Very little is known about inmates on death row im Belarus: these were photographed in Minsk in 2006 in a cell thought to be no longer in use. Source: Human Rights Centre Viasna. While President Lukashenko claims the death penalty is the will of the Belarusian people, they surely didn’t vote for it to be carried out arbitrarily and in secret. The ongoing execution of the death penalty likely has a more political cause. It was recently revealed that Kiryl Kazachok was executed with six months passing before anyone was informed of his death. Like all executions in Belarus, this one was carried out in secrecy. 

Kazachok was found guilty of killing his two children in January 2016. He called the police following the incident, before attempting to kill himself. He was sentenced to death in December 2016 and executed in October 2017. His family only learned about his death early March 2018, as his mother told the Human Rights Centre Viasna.

Belarus is the last country of Europe and Central Asia to continue to apply the death penalty. Human Rights Centre Viasna estimates that since Belarus gained its independence in 1991, more than 400 people have been executed. 

We can only talk about estimates due to the secrecy surrounding the execution of the death penalty. Information is withheld from the public as well as even from family members. A parcel with the personal belongings of the executed is sent to the parents, who until that moment – when they understand that the execution took place – do not know the fate of their children. After that, nobody knows what happens to the bodies of those killed. They are not given to the relatives; burial places are also unknown. 

Just as families and the public are blinded from what is happening to prisoners on death row, the international community is also in the dark. Belarus fails to engage with international mechanisms, and it restricts access to the country by the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus – the only international instrument permanently monitoring the human rights situation in the country. Civil society in the country is also restricted from fully monitoring the situations of those detained.

Legal processes are just as questionable. The lack of access to legal counsel is systematic in Belarus and also concerns prisoners who face charges for crimes punishable by the death penalty. The right to a fair trial is far from guaranteed in a judicial system obedient to the executive branch, and judges systematically follow the prosecution with a ludicrous acquittal rate of 0.02%. Furthermore, ill-treatment and torture are widely used in detention places in Belarus.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the only international body able to consider appeals to verdicts of the Belarusian Supreme Court, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, has found multiple times that executed individuals faced procedural violations and ill-treatment. 

Yet the Belarusian government bluntly and repeatedly ignores interim protection measures set forth by the Committee, when considering appeals of individuals sentenced to death by the Supreme Court.

These systematic failings were the focus of the UN Committee Against Torture’s (CAT’s) recent review of Belarus at the end of April. The Committee found it “very regrettable” that no progress has been made by Belarus on the issue of the death penalty, despite numerous recommendations given at its last review. 

Belarus argued before the CAT that the Human Rights Committee does not have the competence to issue interim protection measures and that the body can only make recommendations with no legal force. One can doubt the validity of the legal argumentation used by the Belarusian government, which specifically ratified an international human rights text granting the Human Rights Committee the competence to review individual complaints after exhaustion of national remedies.

The government’s rationale in any case is cynical to the extreme. The life of individuals are at stake, yet Belarus argues on the legality of the concerns it receives. This underscores the very inhumanity of the death penalty and the risk of killing people are not proven guilty by fair trial. As such, the death penalty reflects well the Belarusian system. One man alone can decide on the fate of all Belarusians, because of the lack of independence of the judiciary.

This makes international scrutiny as important as ever. Following the presidential election of December 2010, and the police violence, arbitrary detentions, and targeting of opposition and human rights movements in the aftermath of the election, the United Nations Human Rights Council mandated an independent expert to monitor Belarus and report annually to the Council and to the General Assembly on the situation in Belarus.

The European Union is leading calls to renew this mandate, sponsoring a resolution on this for the June session of the Council. The European Parliament has called strongly for EU Member States to push for the renewal, and for the EU to set clear benchmarks in it its engagement with Belarus. One of these benchmarks must surely be the abolition of the death penalty, or at the very least for this to be carried out according to the rule of law.

Belarus underlines regularly that it continues to carry out the death penalty because of public support for it and the favorable referendum in 1996. There is even talk of holding a second referendum on the death penalty.

President Lukashenko continues to rule with all powers in his own hands. He is not a man usually swayed by public opinion, as shown by his response to mass protests against social parasite laws last year, which was not one of listening to the people, but of silencing them. Belarus has also not had a free and fair election since he came to power, as underlined by the UN Special Rapporteur in his report on elections and violations in Belarus.

Yet when Lukashenko was seeking for the EU to drop sanctions between 2013 and 2015, the rate of executions dropped. He may be holding the lives of Belarusians as his trump card in international negotiations, but he cannot have it both ways: crushing the voice of the people on the one hand and hiding behind it on the other. 

 

About the authors

Florian Irminger is Human Rights House Foundation's (HRHF’s) Head of Advocacy. Leading HRHF's advocacy programme, he works with member NGOs of Human Rights Houses and other partners in order to raise concerns and recommendations at international fora.

Valiantsin Stefanovic is the Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Center Viasna. He is a Belarusian lawyer and human rights defender, with a focus on issues such as the death penalty and elections.

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