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Russia Vacillating over Abolition

Apr 25 2008

Interview with Victoria Sergeyeva from Penal Reform International

MOSCOW, Apr 25 (IPS) – How close is Russia to abolishing the death penalty? Possibly just two or three years away, suggests Penal Reform International’s director for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, Victoria Sergeyeva. In an interview with IPS correspondent Kester Kenn Klomegah, she explains that leading Russian politicians have already made up their minds on the issue, though their follow MPs still need prodding out of their indecision. Across the country, young, educated city dwellers would welcome the move.

IPS: The Russian Federation recently backed the U.N. General Assembly’s call for the world to move towards abolishing the death penalty. What is the legal position today in Russia on capital punishment? Victoria Sergeyeva (VS): Since 1996, Russia has observed a de facto moratorium on executions. The moratorium came into force by presidential decree at the time the Russian Federation was joining the Council of Europe. Later, Russia also signed — but has yet to ratify — Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights on the abolition of the death penalty. So, since 1996 no death sentences have been handed down or executions carried out. But a final decision on the future of the death penalty still has to be taken. The Russian Constitution still allows for the possibility of the death penalty. And the Russian Federation’s Criminal Code still envisages capital punishment for five categories of crimes.

IPS: Apart from the 1996 presidential decree, has the moratorium been adopted into law?

VS: In 1999, the Constitutional Court did issue an unprecedented ruling on the moratorium — at least a temporary one. It said that no death sentences could be passed down anywhere in the Russian Federation until jury trials had been introduced everywhere in the country. So, this was a constitutional ban on any court issuing death sentences until this was the case.

IPS: You said it was a temporary ban. When do you expect this process of introducing jury trials to be completed?

VS: The Chechnya republic will be the last region to complete this process. In January 2007, the State Duma approved a law postponing trial by jury there until 2010.

IPS: The ruling on jury trials would, it seems, not stand in the way of abolishing the death penalty ahead of whatever happens in Chechnya. Why has the Russian Federation been so slow in formally abolishing the death penalty?

VS: First of all, there’s no common support for death penalty abolition among Russian deputies. Many MPs are in favour of capital punishment. The death penalty has been discussed a few times in the State Duma. But each time the debates have ended fruitlessly.

The authorities have put enormous efforts into ensuring capital punishment is not applied. But there’s something preventing them from striking out this punishment from legislation. And although there are currently no executions, there’s actually an active struggle going on to re-instate capital punishment, especially for past and potential acts of terrorism.

So, Russian parliamentarians are indecisive and inconsistent on the death penalty issue. The MPs very often try to mask this by saying that it’s the Russian people who are not yet ready to accept death penalty abolition.

IPS: Have you carried out any surveys of public opinion on the death penalty?

VS: Last year, Penal Reform International initiated a worldwide project called ‘Global Action on the Abolition of the Death Penalty’. This was organised by our four regional offices. Here in Russia, the Yuri Levada Analytical Centre conducted a countrywide poll asking some 1,600 people. We found the majority still supported the death penalty, but not such a high proportion as in previous years.

The results also showed that the majority of the young and educated in the large cities actively supported death penalty abolition. Generally, the number of people supporting the moratorium had increased from 23 percent in 2006 to 31 percent in 2007. Overall, 11 percent of Russian citizens were against the death penalty and we hope this percentage will continue to grow.

IPS: Did you question people on what they thought of life imprisonment?

VS: We did not canvass detailed views on the alternatives to capital punishment. But what we did learn was that the population is evenly split on what punishment is the worse: the death penalty or life imprisonment. This is very important as it seems to suggest that life imprisonment is seen to be as bad as the death penalty.

IPS: Did you find this to be the case in the other countries you surveyed?

VS: I would say this is not just the case in Russia. Most people in the world would have the same opinion. Prisons everywhere are filling up. Over the past three or four years there’s been a general increase in prison populations. This is not just the case in poor developing countries, but also in the developed Western countries. And the preference is to isolate offenders.

IPS: You are familiar with the conditions in the Russian prison system. Is life imprisonment a humane alternative to the death penalty?

VS: Life imprisonment has existed as an alternative to the death penalty in Russia since 1992. It should be noted that this punishment is much more cruel here than in other European countries. Russia’s 1,600 lifers serve out their sentences in special correctional colonies with a high level of supervision. They are totally isolated from society. One really could describe their living conditions and treatment as torture. When one considers that they can only apply for early release after 25 years of imprisonment, their chances of ever returning to society are really very minimal.

IPS: Are there grounds for optimism that Russian will abolish the death penalty?

VS: Some key politicians, including the president, the chairmen of various committees in the State Duma and Federation Council, including the head of its Committee on Internal Affairs, have expressed their support for death penalty abolition. As I mentioned, the State Duma has postponed jury trials in the Chechnya Republic until 2010. This means that Russia’s death penalty moratorium is extended for another three years. But I think it is going to be very difficult to extend the moratorium further.

IPS: Does this mean that you think abolition of the death penalty in Russia will be announced before 2010?

VS: Yes, it’s possible that within the next two to three years, Russia will ratify Protocol No. 6 and strike out the death penalty from its national legislation. I know that in March this year, the State Duma’s Committee on Legislation introduced a draft law on the abolition of the death penalty and this is now being discussed in the Russian parliament. (END/2008)

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