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Russia to decide on death penalty moratorium

Valery Pankrashin
BBC Russian, St Petersburg

Russia's constitutional court
The court is deciding whether to maintain a ban on the death penalty

Russia's constitutional court has begun hearings into whether the death penalty can be re-introduced after a 10-year moratorium.

The tribunal is examining the issue after a request by the supreme court, and will have to make its decision by 1 January when the moratorium is due to come to an end.

In 1999 the constitutional court ruled that the death penalty could not be used until jury trials had been introduced in all of Russia's 89 regions.

The supreme court took the case to the constitutional court in order to clarify the future of the moratorium because the first ever jury trials will take place in Chechnya on 1 January.

Chechnya is the only remaining part of the Russian Federation where trials by jury have never been held.

The arguments

During the hearings, leaders of Russia's lower house, the Duma, made their position clear.

"The death penalty will be phased out in the next few years", said Duma representative Alexander Kharitonov.

Already there is effectively no death penalty in Russia; this is an historical fact
Mikhail Barschevsky
Kremlin representative

He added that Russia had signed Protocol Six of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the use of the death penalty in peaceful times.

Although the protocol has not been ratified, it requires Russia to refrain from using the death penalty until the courts have made a final decision on the case.

Supreme court judge, Vladimir Davidov, said that the primacy of international law in domestic affairs means that either Russia should adhere to the dictates of the protocol, or else leave it for good.

Elena Vinogradova, a representative of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, said it was important to "assure the public that the state wishes to ban the death penalty out of a duty to its citizens, not because of any international commitments".

She added that the abolition of the death penalty in Russia was inevitable.

During the hearing, a Kremlin court representative, Mikhail Barschevsky said: "The Constitutional Court views today's proceedings as a defining factor in the historical development of Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
President Medvedev supports the abolition of the death penalty in Russia

"Already there is effectively no death penalty in Russia; this is an historical fact", he said.

Barschevsky said that a life sentence in prison is just as harsh as a death sentence.

"A lifetime in prison when you can never again hope to see birds or the sea or throw a snowball - this is what real punishment is".

He added that in China, where those found guilty of corruption are shot in public, corruption is, in fact, on the rise.

The president's representative at the Constitutional Court Mikhail Krotov, said that President Dmitry Medvedev was in favour of the gradual abolition of the death penalty.

Public opinion

Most analysts expect the moratorium to be extended because Russia is not ready to pull out of Protocol Six.

However a recent survey shows around two thirds of Russians support the death penalty.

One in four is against it, mainly because of the possibility that judges will make mistakes.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the political elite believes the moratorium should stay.

I've seen people who will cross any boundary except their own life, and maybe this will stop someone
Alexander Bastrykin
Investigative Committee of Prosecutors

The Speaker of the Duma, Sergei Mironov, describes himself as "a staunch opponent of the death penalty".

The head of the foreign affairs committee of the Federation Council, Mikhail Margelov, recently stated that "in other countries, the death penalty has always been removed because of the will of the majority.

"The political elite are pitting their inclination for rational modernisation against the will of the people."

Supporters

However, some politicians would welcome the return of the death penalty, such as the Vice Speaker of the Duma, Liubov Sliska and Federation Council member, Svetlana Orlova.

The head of the investigative committee of prosecutors, Alexander Bastrykin, is another staunch advocate.

"I've seen people who will cross any boundary except their own life, and maybe this will stop someone," he said.

The last time the death penalty was used was in September, 1996.

Since then, 681 convicted criminals have escaped execution in Russia.

The death penalty is legal in 59 countries. 25 of them used it last year to execute almost 9,000 people.

The only European country where the death penalty is still used is Belarus.

Should the Russia's constitutional court lift the moratorium, some commentators say prosecutors may attempt to enforce death sentences handed out by courts since 1996.



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