Belarus dispatch: Minsk expands reach of death penalty to include enemies of Lukashenko regime
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Belarus dispatch: Minsk expands reach of death penalty to include enemies of Lukashenko regime

Law students and lawyers in Belarus are filing reports with JURIST on the situation in their country Here, a law student reports on the complications posed by the authoritarian government’s recent expansion of the list of crimes for which one can be executed. For privacy and security reasons, we are withholding our correspondent’s name. The text has only been lightly edited to respect the author’s voice.

A recent expansion of the body of crimes for which one can be executed in Belarus has sent chills over opposition activists in a country often described as Europe’s last dictatorship.

Following the passage of a bill in recent weeks by the Belarusian parliament, the country’s criminal code now states that the death penalty can be applied for the following crimes:

  • Article 124, part 2: an act of terrorism against a representative of a foreign State or international organization;
  • Article 126, part 3: an act of international terrorism;
  • Article 289, part 3: an act of terrorism committed by an organized group, either with the use of nuclear energy facilities or with the use of radioactive substances or nuclear materials, toxic chemicals or biological substances, or involving the murder of a person; and
  • Article 359, part 2: the murder of a state or public figure committed in connection with his state or public activities in order to influence decision-making by the authorities.

The amendments also had an impact on Article 67 of the Criminal Code of Belarus, which pertains to sentencing for crimes that are not ultimately carried out. Previously, the death penalty could not have been imposed for preparation for or attempt of a crime, but new exceptions have been made for the crimes listed above.

Everything about the death penalty’s implementation in Belarus is inhumane. The executions of prisoners across the country are carried out in a central Minsk pre-trial detention center. Neither the prisoners nor their family members are notified in advance that the execution is imminent. Typically, several prisoners at a time will be rounded up in the dead of night, forced to kneel, and then shot in the back of the head, in the presence of a prosecutor and a medical doctor charged with verifying their deaths. Once the prisoners are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves. The cause of death on their death certificates simply reads “served in accordance with the verdict.”

This is particularly troubling given that Belarus was unable to join the Council of Europe (COE) precisely because of the existence of its death penalty. And ultimately this fact deprives the country’s citizens of access to justice; because of Belarus’ exclusion from the COE, its citizens are unable to challenge alleged abuses before the European Court of Human Rights. Ultimately the only way to put pressure on the government is through the UN Human Rights Committee, whose decisions are only advisory in nature.

The Committee’s futility over Belarusian criminal justice was illustrated in 2012 with the executions of 25-year-old factory workers Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov. The two men were convicted of having carried out the deadly bombing of a Minsk metro station. Following the verdict, their families filed complaints with the UN body, which decided to expedite its consideration of the issue in light of its urgent nature. However, the Republic of Belarus carried out the executions before the Committee was able to render its decision — which ultimately, albeit with no meaningful impact, found the Belarusian court’s ruling illegal.

In the course of Alexander Lukashenko’s nearly three-decade-long dictatorship, thousands of Belarusian people have faced repression and have been subject to political imprisonment. It is in this context that the continued existence and enforcement of the death penalty is so concerning.

The expansion of Belarus’ list of crimes that can result in capital punishment is particularly worrying given recent political developments in the country. Since August 2020, Lukashenko has steadily ramped up his machine of oppression. The new changes in the criminal code will only embolden him to kill off the enemies of the regime, under the auspices of legal legitimacy. The only thing saving the political activists who continue to languish in prison is the fact that the new law is not retroactively applicable. But fears mount for future opposition activists.