Europe

Belarus: The death penalty returns to Europe

  • 17 October 2016
  • From the section Europe
Inmates serving life at Glubokoye jail, north of Minsk - 2009 file pic Image copyright AFP
Image caption Inmates serving life at Glubokoye jail, north of Minsk, line up for an inspection

A box of clothes arrives on a doorstep in a European country just over 1,620km (1,000 miles) from the UK.

It contains the belongings of a man executed by the state.

They will not know when it happened or where his body is buried - they simply know it has been done.

This is the reality of the death penalty in Belarus, sometimes called Europe's last remaining dictatorship, where executions have resumed, following a two-year pause.

The majority of people are killed by a gun shot to the head and the bodies are never seen again.

Fruitless EU gesture

The decision to resume executions comes just eight months after EU foreign ministers removed asset freezes and travel bans for more than 150 Belarusian politicians and leaders, including President Alexander Lukashenko.

That EU move came after Belarus had released six political prisoners.

But at least four people have been sentenced to death since February.

Valiantsin Stefanovic from the Viasna Human Rights Centre told BBC Outside Source: "There is a lot of secrecy around this problem.

"Sometimes it [death] happens very quickly, in two or three months after the decision of the court.

"Nobody knows what happens to the bodies, they do not give them to the relatives. The burial place is not shown."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Human rights groups say Belarus operates a harsh penal system and harasses dissidents

The death penalty was introduced in Belarus during Soviet times and covered several crimes, such as forging money, as well as murder.

Public opinion still favours executions, and polls in some parts of Western Europe draw similar results.

"Public opinion has changed though," says Valiantsin. "The majority of people still support this punishment, but that is nothing special."

Belarus has been widely criticised over its human rights issues during the 22-year-rule of President Lukashenko, who won a fifth term by a landslide last year.

Belarus country profile

Image copyright Adarja Gushtyn / HRC Viasna
Image caption Lyubov Kovaleva in a march against the death penalty

About 400 people have been executed in Belarus since the country gained independence from the USSR in 1991, more than one a month.

We spoke with Lyubov Kovaleva, whose 25-year-old son was executed in 2012 for terrorism offences.

She claims he was forced into a confession and the verdict was to shoot the accused.

"I was allowed only three meetings: before the trial, after the verdict was announced and before the shooting," she told Outside Source. "His lawyer met him only once."

Strict surveillance

Ms Kovaleva was instructed to discuss only private matters and talk about just family and friends.

"There was a police officer behind me who controlled our conversation. My son was behind the window and another police officer was behind him."

Before the first meeting she was given a piece of paper with questions she was allowed to ask.

"I could not do anything to help him - apparently it was Lukashenko's decision to execute my son."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A woman cries after a family member is sentenced to death in a Belarus court

A human rights report last week suggested rights to a defence in capital punishment cases were being "systematically violated" and "lawyers and judges lack independence".

Internationally the Belarusian government is now under pressure.

Europe's top human rights watchdog - the Council of Europe - deplored the situation. Its secretary-general Thorbjoern Jagland said: "I am deeply disappointed that Belarus has started using the death penalty again.

"I call on the authorities in Minsk to rapidly introduce a moratorium, as a first step towards abolition."

And the European Parliament lamented the fact that Belarus was showing no sign of progress on human rights.

Outside Source is broadcast on the BBC World Service weekdays at 11am GMT

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