For some in Belarus, Independence Day might be their last

By Svetlana Vorobyeva, Amnesty International’s Belarus campaigner

As Belarus marks Independence Day today, three men have been left wondering if it will be their last.

These men live in the only country in Europe that still retains the death penalty and executes death row prisoners in secret with barely any notice. The preferred method of execution is a bullet in the back of the head.

The secrecy surrounding the death penalty in Belarus denies families the opportunity to say good-bye to their loved ones and bury them according to their traditions and religious beliefs.

Authorities even refuse to reveal where an executed prisoner was buried making an unimaginably painful situation even worse.

Uladzslau Kavalyou was one of them. He was sentenced to death in November 2011 and executed in March 2012. His lawyer claims the investigation and trial violated basic international standards.

Uladzslau’s relatives were not informed of the date of execution beforehand or granted a final meeting with him. The whereabouts of his body have not been disclosed.

According to article 175 of the Criminal Executive Code of Belarus, prisoners are informed just hours or even minutes before their execution, and their families and lawyers are told only after the event.

So far this year, Belarus sentenced three people to death: Rygor Yuzepchuk was sentenced on 24 April while Pavel Selyun and Alyaksandr Haryunou were sentenced on 12 and 14 June respectively.

The Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus is now due to consider their appeals.

If this fails, they will have a last chance to apply to President Lukashenka for clemency. However, he has reportedly only ever granted one stay of execution since he came to power in 1994.

I’ve recently talked to Tamara Selyun, the mother of Pavel Selyun, who told me she is prepared to fight for justice. Her son is being detained in the Investigation Isolation Prison (SIZO) No. 1 in the city of Hrodna. Tamara, who lives over 300 km away from the jail, told me that she has to travel all night by train and bus to see her son, and take food parcels to him.

She has not received any letters from him since he was sentenced to death on 12 June, and is concerned he may commit suicide.

When she called the detention centre she wasn’t given any information about her son. She was just told that if he does not write it means that “he doesn’t want to write to her”.

These three men have been convicted for serious crimes, but the death penalty is not a solution to crime and it won’t bring their victims back to life.

The death penalty violates the right to life, as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and it should not be used by any government in the world.

The Belarusian authorities must commute these death sentences immediately and make Europe and Central Asia a death penalty free zone.

As a very first step, and pending full abolition, Belarus must end the cruel secrecy surrounding the use of the death penalty and amend article 175.