The topic of the death penalty in Belarus again acquired special urgency after the broadcast on September 5 on the pro-government Belarusian TV channel STV of a story about the probable execution of a death sentence against Viktor Skrundik. In the report, the author regrets the fate of the convict: “Today he is 30. It could have been. The first death sentence in 2021”.
Based on the plot, it can be assumed that the death sentence was carried out. Although at the beginning of the year there was hope that this type of criminal punishment would be abolished in Belarus. What has changed during this time?
The hope for the abolition of the death penalty did not materialize
“The topic of the death penalty in Belarus is constantly in a wave-like state,” says Andrei Poluda, coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus”. It depends on two things – the political situation and new death sentences.
In January this year, reminds Poluda, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced changes to the Criminal Code (CC): the topic of the “second package” of amendments was discussed, which provided for the introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty.
But already in March, the human rights activist notes, there were signs indicating that the abolition of the death penalty in the country would remain outside the scope of the planned innovations. The fears were confirmed in May, when Alexander Lukashenko signed the law “On Amendments to Codes on Criminal Liability.” Now the possibility of abolishing the death penalty will again be discussed no earlier than February 2022, believes Andriy Poluda, when it comes to constitutional changes.
Traditional trump card in negotiations with the EU
Political scientist Andrei Yegorov, director of the Center for European Transformations, says that the Belarusian authorities have traditionally used talks about the possibility of abolishing the death penalty as a bargaining chip in negotiations with European partners during periods of warmer relations. And before the introduction of tough sanctions against Belarus, the official Minsk could hope that the renewed discussion in the society about the refusal of this type of punishment would help to improve relations with the EU.
But today, the political scientist believes, the topic has been removed from the agenda: “The authorities cannot use it as an impetus to resume negotiations with the EU, since the main demand now is the release of political prisoners and an end to repressions.”
When DW asked whether the Ministry of Internal Affairs had deceived society in this way, Andrei Poluda replies that the authorities, rather, “did not deceive, but were deceived”: they tried to “put this topic up for auction with the EU in January, but quickly realized that at this stage nothing will work. “
Changes in the Criminal Code are repressive
Chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) Oleg Gulak, in turn, believes that talks about the abolition of the death penalty should have been perceived as informational stuff, since “there was no real promise.” “I don’t remember that a competent government official would officially announce the prepared amendments,” says Gulak.
Conversations on this topic, he continues, have been going on for twenty years, and all this time – to no avail. Although the promised changes to the Criminal Code did take place, the corresponding law was adopted by both chambers of the Belarusian parliament, signed by Lukashenka, and published in June and came into force.
Its most visible effect is a change in the rules by which the terms of detention are counted: now one day in a pre-trial detention center is equivalent to one and a half days in a colony. Thanks to the innovation, some of the prisoners have already been released.
At the same time, criminal liability was introduced for repeated violations of the procedure for holding mass events, and a new article appeared in the Criminal Code for owners of Internet resources for the repeated dissemination of prohibited information. “That is, the changes were more likely aimed at punishing dissidents,” says Oleg Gulak.
Death Penalties – Demonstrative Response to Sanctions?
At the beginning of the year, Andrei Poluda notes, five people were awaiting execution in Minsk SIZO-1: brothers Ilya and Stanislav Kostevs, Viktor Sergel, Viktor Pavlov and Viktor Skrundik, mentioned in the STV TV report.
On April 30, it became known that those convicted of the murder of Kosteva were pardoned. Poluda calls the decision “a real act of mercy” towards both brothers, who at the time of the sentencing were 20 and 22 years old, respectively. The shooting was replaced by life imprisonment, and the Kostyevs were transferred to prison no. 8 in Zhodino, which, according to the human rights activist, “gave hope for further humanization.”
But already in June the situation changed dramatically. The relatives of Viktor Pavlov, sentenced to capital punishment, reported that, most likely, he was shot. Letters from Pavlov stopped coming, and when the lawyer wanted to meet with him, in SIZO-1 he was informed that the convict had dropped out.
If we proceed from the fact that what was said in the television story about the fate of the convicted Viktor Skrundik is true, this death penalty has become the second since the beginning of the year, says Andrei Poluda. “And yet nothing is known about the fate of Viktor Sergel,” he adds.
In Belarus, the relatives of those sentenced to death are not informed about the date of the execution or the place of burial of the executed. So there is no official confirmation of information about the deaths of Viktor Pavlov and Viktor Skrundik, said human rights activist Polud.
Andrei Yegorov, in turn, does not exclude that both death sentences could be a demonstrative response to the sanctions imposed against Belarus. “The authorities, as promised, are destroying civil society, continue to put people in jail, and then, in addition, they carry out death sentences: you wanted us to be civilized, but we, in spite of you, will not be civilized,” he tries to understand the logic official Minsk Egorov.