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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK

World: Europe

Yeltsin pardons death row inmates

Russian courts handed down death sentences until February

President Boris Yeltsin has pardoned Russia's final remaining prisoners on death row, piling pressure on the country's parliament to put a definitive end to capital punishment.

The BBC's Robert Parsons: President Yeltsin has thrown his weight behind the effort to abolish capital punishment
The Russian leader issued a decree on Thursday commuting the death sentences of the 716 prisoners to life or 25 years in prison.

Announcing the decree at a national conference on capital punishment, Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov said: "This is a historic day in Russian democracy."

President Yeltsin is pressing parliament to pass a bill abolishing the death penalty - something Russia has to do to comply with the terms of its membership of the Council of Europe human rights forum.


His efforts to abolish capital punishment have been thwarted by Communists and other hard-liners in the parliament who argue that the death penalty is necessary to control violent crime. Correspondents say there is also widespread public support for the punishment as the only effective deterrent against serious crime.

[ image: Russia's prison system is plagued by disease and overcrowding]
Russia's prison system is plagued by disease and overcrowding
And Russia's overstretched prison service complains that it has neither the means, nor the training, to cope with hundreds of long-term prisoners.

But human rights activists warn that without legal support, Russia could face renewed executions under a possible new leader after a presidential election due in 2000.

President Yeltsin placed a moratorium on executions when Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996 and no one has been executed since then. But Russian courts handed down death sentences until February and capital punishment is still on the books.

Russia ranked third in the world in 1996 for the number of executions, putting to death as many as 140 prisoners with a single shot to the back of the head.

'No deterrent'

Anatoly Pristavkin, head of the Presidential Commission on Pardons, told the death penalty conference that capital punishment had done nothing to deter Russia's most violent criminals.

He said many death row inmates were alcoholics and drifters - not the organised crime bosses and hit men who many Russians fear.

Mr Pristavkin added that prison conditions in Russia were so atrocious that many inmates were "practically begging for a death sentence" to escape the overcrowding and disease that plague Russian prisons.

"Waiting for death is even worse punishment than execution," he said.

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