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BELARUS: Fight Against Death Penalty Gets Tougher

BRATISLAVA, Dec 11 2011 (IPS) - A petition signed by 250,000 people calling for an end to capital punishment has been turned away by Belarussian authorities as the regime continues to harden its stance on the death penalty.

Just one year ago there was hope that a moratorium on capital punishment could be close as a parliamentary commission began discussing the issue.

But just days after two men were sentenced to death, campaigners say a climate of fear now exists around official debate of the death penalty as President Alexander Lukashenka has moved to brutally crush any opposition to his regime since re-election at the end of last year.

One campaigner told IPS: “We have been dealing with a partner in Belarus on a project to open public discussion of the death penalty, but they admit to a fear of being linked with it. There is anxiety among civil society.”

Belarus is the only country in Europe still executing people. There are no reliable official statistics available but rights groups estimate that as many as 400 people may have been put to death since Belarus became an independent state in 1991. Two men were executed earlier this year.

The former Soviet state has faced years of international condemnation over continued use of the death penalty. Critics attack not only the retention of the sentence itself but also raise concerns over the fairness of trials in Belarus, use of torture when confessions are made, and the mental health of those convicted.

The establishment of a parliamentary committee to discuss a moratorium on the death penalty last year had led to hopes that Belarus might agree relatively soon to end the use of capital punishment.

But those hopes have been completely dashed in the past 12 months since Lukashenka’s re-election as he has launched blanket suppression of all rights groups.

Meanwhile, independent local media have reported that government politicians are too scared to even approach the subject in parliament for fear of upsetting Lukashenka.

Heather McGill, a researcher with Amnesty International, told IPS: “What has changed is probably the events of last December. There has been a big change in atmosphere and a very strong clampdown by Lukashenka.”

This clampdown has extended to harassment and persecution of rights activists in Belarus who have been involved in campaigning for an end to capital punishment.

A report by the UN Committee on Torture released last month raised grave concerns over the harassment of rights campiagners. Among other things it specifically identified figures in two leading human rights organisations, which work on issues linked to the death penalty, as having been targeted by the regime – the chair of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Aleh Gula, and the president of Viasna, Ales Byalyatski.

The dismissal of the petition, raised by Amnesty and Belarusian human rights organisations Viasna and the Belarus Helsinki Committee, comes just days after the sentencing to death of two men has refocused attention on Belarus’s use of capital punishment.

Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov were sentenced to be shot by firing squad for a bomb attack in the Minsk subway in April 2011 that killed 15 people and wounded around 200 others at the end of last month.

While serious doubts have been raised about the fairness of the men’s trial and the safety of their convictions amid allegations of torture in custody and forced confessions, the international community has been united and swift in its condemnation of the sentence.

The United Nations, the EU, the Council of Europe and other international institutions immediately called for Lukashenka to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty.

But Lukashenka, who has overseen a de facto dictatorship in the country since he came to power in 1994, has ignored the calls.

Lukashenka has in the past been accused of using the death penalty as a political “bargaining chip” with the West which he will promise to end if and when it offers him something he wants.

But rights groups say that he is no longer even pretending to do this.

A spokesperson for Penal Reforms International (PRI) told IPS: “Lukashenka’s stance on the death penalty might be influenced if he was offered some external economic help, as the country is facing an economic crisis, but invitations into international structures, like the European Union or others, would definitely not have any effect.”

Rights groups have previously said that the only way to bring about an end to the use of capital punishment in Belarus is to work to change opinion from inside the country rather than internationally.

They are now hoping that, despite the climate of fear surrounding discussion of the issue, they can encourage public support for abolition of the death penalty.

Official referendums have shown as much as 80 percent of the population backs capital punishment.

But independent polls suggest the figure is much lower. In a 2010 poll by the Sociologists Centre in Minsk, 48 percent said they supported abolition of the death penalty. Another poll by the Belarussian NOVAK organisation showed 39 percent wanted an end to capital punishment.

The sentencing of Konovalov and Kovalyov and the emotional public appeals for clemency from Kovalyov’s mother have moved public opinion and spurred local activists into action. Stickers and posters saying “no to the death penalty” appeared across Minsk after the pair were sentenced, put up by the European Belarus group.

And in what Amnesty International claimed was “an unprecedented show of public support” for the two men sentenced to death, a petition against their execution was signed by over 50,000 people.

John Dalhuisen, deputy programme director of the Europe and Central Asia programme at Amnesty International, said: “The delivery of our petition today brings Belarusian and international voices together in a clear message to the President to end this barbaric practice now.”

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