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Europe: An Almost Death Penalty-Free Continent

Death Penalty Worldwide has just updated its research on the Russian Federation and Belarus, the only European countries that have not completely abolished the death penalty.

In Europe, capital punishment has been abolished country by country, and today it is nearly a death penalty-free area. Since 1999, there have been no executions in the Council of Europe region (which comprises 47 countries – every European country except Belarus). The abolition of the death penalty is presently a condition for membership in both the Council of Europe and the European Union.

Every Council of Europe Member State is party to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which protects the right to life. The Convention, signed in 1950, originally allowed for the death penalty, but imposed safeguards on its application, such as the legality principle and the guarantee of an independent and impartial tribunal (Article 2: “Right to life. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law”), the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 3), and the right to a fair trial (Article 6). In 1983, Protocol No. 6 was opened for signature, which provided for the abolition of the death penalty except for acts committed in time of war or of imminent threat of war. In 2002, Protocol No. 13 was opened for signature, with a view to abolishing capital punishment in all circumstances. Moreover, the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights has established that a State Party to these Protocols would violate the Convention if it agreed to extradite a person to any country where there were “substantial grounds” for believing that there was a “real risk” that the person would be sentenced to death, without clear and binding assurances from that country that the person would not be so sentenced, or at least that the penalty would not be carried out (see Soering v. UK, Jul. 7, 1989; Kaboulov v. Ukraine, Nov. 19, 2009, §99).

Protocol No. 6 was ratified by all Member States of the Council of Europe except for Russia. Protocol No. 13 was ratified by all but 4 Member States (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Poland and Russia). Latvia ratified Protocol No. 13 most recently, in January 2012.  No Member States of the Council of Europe apply the death penalty.

The Council of Europe has been an active voice against the death penalty, which it considers inhuman, and has consistently urged the countries that retain it to consider its abolition.

The European Union also rejects the death penalty. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states in Article 2 (protecting the right to life) that no one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed. All 27 Member States of the EU have abolished the death penalty in law.

Russia is the only Member State of the Council of Europe that still has not ratified Protocol No. 6, despite having committed itself to doing so in 1996 as a condition of accession to the organization. At the time, however, then-President Boris Yeltsin imposed a moratorium on executions.  In 1999, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Federation had not yet implemented adequate safeguards regarding the application of the death penalty and instituted a judicial moratorium on the death penalty until jury trials were made available in all regions of the Federation. By the end of 2009, when jury trials were ready to begin operating in all regions, the Constitutional Court revisited the issue and extended the moratorium, this time based on the international commitments of the Federation. Russia hence falls under the category of abolitionist de facto countries. Yet the current moratorium’s prospects of leading the country to de jure abolition in the near future remain uncertain, as politicians have postponed abolition by citing terrorist attacks in the country and the alleged support of public opinion for capital punishment. Death Penalty Worldwide’s research also shows that the lack of fair trial safeguards and harsh prison conditions are still a challenge for the Russian justice system.

Belarus is the only retentionist country in the continent. It is also the only European country that is neither a Member of the Council of Europe nor a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. Belarus continues to apply and to execute death sentences; just last month, in March 2012, it executed two men convicted of the bomb attack at a Minsk subway in 2011. There were serious concerns about the fairness of their trials. Despite the small number of executions in the past few years in Belarus, trials lacking fundamental legal safeguards, poor prison conditions on death row, and the secrecy surrounding executions (families are notified only after the execution has been carried out and the bodies of the executed are buried in unmarked graves that are kept secret) remain serious concerns. Continuous appeals by the international community urging Belarus to adopt a moratorium on executions have been ignored. The country’s authorities adopt ambiguous positions, sometimes expressing willingness to consider the possibility of abolition, and at other times showing a lack of political will, arguing that public opinion supports the death penalty. Recent events have dashed hopes that the country will move towards abolition in the near future and that Europe will soon become a wholly death penalty-free continent.

Our updated research on the death penalty in Russia and in Belarus is available here (Russian Federation) and here (Belarus).