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DEATH PENALTY: Abolition Needed, Not Moratorium

Pavol Stracansky

MOSCOW, Oct 7 2010 (IPS) - While almost all former Soviet states have rid their legal systems of the death penalty, a handful keep moratoriums in place. And although any stop to the death penalty is welcomed by campaigners against capital punishment, they say that in an often politically troubled region which has already seen calls for a reinstatement of the death penalty, complete abolition is needed to ensure authoritarian and populist leaders cannot reinstate it.

Jacqueline Macalesher, death penalty project manager at Penal Reform International, told IPS: “Moratoriums are not enough. Countries need to abolish the death penalty entirely. Wherever you have governments that are prone to populism and authoritarianism, there is always a risk that a death penalty under moratorium can be easily brought back.”

Following the fall of communism, states across Eastern Europe and Central Asia that had once been part of the Soviet Union inherited constitutions which included the death penalty. Although Belarus still carries out executions, throughout the last two decades many of those countries have legally abolished it. Some, however, have issued only a moratorium.

Russia introduced a moratorium in 1996 and it was extended indefinitely last year by the Constitutional Court. Despite pledges to fully abolish the death penalty, Russia’s parliament has never done so. Experts say that leaders are wary of definitively outlawing it because of widespread public support for capital punishment.

One Moscow-based activist campaigning for the end of the death penalty told IPS: “Here in Russia populist politicians use the death penalty to win votes because they know it is supported by ordinary people. Public opinion is one of the reasons the Russian authorities are in no hurry to go through with complete abolition.”

The death penalty also has its strong backers among politicians, and continuing terror attacks have already led to calls for its re-introduction. Following attacks in Moscow in March which left 39 people dead, a group of senators said they wanted a law drafted to reinstate capital punishment.


Previously, leaders in semi-autonomous regions such as Ingushetia which has suffered from terrorism, had made similar calls.

Campaigners argue that politicians could be tempted to reinstate capital punishment in an attempt to woo voters by appearing to deal firmly with crime.

One such recent example, experts point out, came in Poland which had already outlawed capital punishment. In Polish elections in 2005 politicians promoted a return of the death penalty — despite the fact that EU membership expressly forbids it.

Heather McGill, a specialist on the death penalty at Amnesty International, told IPS: “It appeared this was done solely to give the appearance of addressing the crime situation.”

Public support for the death penalty remains generally high in many former Soviet states. Sociologists say that this is down in part to cultural histories of capital punishment for the most violent crime, and slow changes in views on human rights compared to most Western states.

They say that while many Western countries abandoned the death penalty in the second half of the last century as it came to be seen as a violation of fundamental human rights, that debate was absent in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

Polls carried out late last year showed that between 65 and 74 percent of Russians wanted capital punishment brought back.

In Belarus, where the death penalty is actively enforced, it is estimated that as many as four-fifth of the population backs its continued use.

The Central Asian state Tajikistan is another of the few countries in the region which has not completely abolished the death penalty.

The poorest of the five Central Asian nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union has seen an explosion of terrorist violence in recent months. No one has been executed since 2004 when a moratorium was introduced. But officials in the country — ruled with an iron fist by President Emomali Rakhmon — have said public support for the death penalty is such that the country is not yet ready for complete abolition.

A moratorium also exists in a number of internationally unrecognised states which are beyond the control of the territories they are located in — Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and the Transdniestrian Moldavian Republic in Moldova.

 
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