“I didn’t know my country had the death penalty – until they executed my father”
Wedding and fashion stylist Sasha Yakavitskaya, 29, only discovered that Belarus still uses the death penalty after her father was sentenced to death and executed less than a year later. In fact, Belarus is the only country in Europe and Central Asia still executing prisoners. Here, Sasha shares her agonising story and reveals why it’s time for change…
My father was sentenced to death in Belarus in 2016. Ten months later, he was executed. We were only notified one month after [his death], as is usual in Belarus.
I used to visit my father in prison once a month. He was escorted to our meetings by five prison guards. His hands were tied together and he couldn’t see where he was going. He was always stressed when he came [to see me]. He knew he was either going to see me, his lawyer or he was going to be shot.
The prison guards would stay with us, listening carefully to what we were talking about. We never spoke about what he did or about his case. We only spoke about personal matters.
I remember the last time I saw my father. It was on 5 November 2016. He was saying: ‘Everything is fine, we have enough time, don’t worry.’ One prison guard was joking ironically: ‘Yes, you have a bit of time. Just a bit left.’ The guard was making it clear that my father’s execution was going to happen sooner or later. He wanted to crush my father’s morale while I was there. I can only imagine how they acted one on one, with no relatives or loved ones present.
I gave my father a parcel, thinking I would go again a month later. Just as I was planning to visit him again, we got the letter. He’d been shot the day I went to see him. We didn’t ask for any of his personal belongings. My mother was scared they would send us his prison uniform. But it’s a shame because he had personal photographs. I think they threw them out or burnt them – they could have returned them to us. The trial was very strange. It was more like a circus. One witness turned up drunk. His testimonies were contradictory, even the judge questioned it. He was saying: ‘Oh, I can’t remember exactly.’ The entire case was built on such testimonies and evidence.
‘Nobody else could have done it’ was the main line of argument in my father’s case and the fact that he had a criminal record. The court did not care about who else could have done it. It’s bizarre but that’s how it was - our government decided the outcome.
The death penalty is a long-standing practice in Belarus. It is thought that during the Soviet times up to 250,000 people were executed and buried in a place called Kurapaty. It might seem like a long time ago, but it’s still happening today. People are executed and nobody is notified. Families have no idea where their loved ones are buried.
For us, it is hard to come to terms with what’s happened because we didn’t bury my father, we didn’t see his body- so it’s like he’s still out there somewhere, alive and well. We do have a plot for his grave. We’ve kept it very plain, but it doesn’t stop us from praying for him. It is harder for my mother because some people keep telling her he is still alive. Others call and say they can show her where he is buried if we pay.
There are few people who pay attention to the fact we still have the death penalty in Belarus – so I am grateful to organisations such as Amnesty International which continue to draw public attention to the problem and which campaigned for my father’s death sentence to be commuted.
After he was sentenced to death, nobody ever discussed it with me in our small town in Belarus. However, people on the internet had a lot to say. People did not understand why my mother and I supported him. Some said we should be shot as well or placed in a psychiatric hospital. People also said things about my four-year-old daughter. That’s what hurt me the most. They said she should be shot because she will grow up to be the same.
People often ask me why I tell my story. I don’t talk about political issues, I’m not interested. I am telling my personal story, how it affected my family. Despite the tragedy that struck our family, we are moving on – I need to, especially for my daughter. I have a great creative job, which I love. It’s helping me to heal, move on from my problems and forget all the difficulties we’ve faced.
I didn’t even know the death penalty existed in Belarus – the first time I heard about it was in court. When the public prosecutor demanded the death penalty, I was shocked. I thought he was mistaken. That’s the problem. Before you face it yourself, you don’t think about it.
There are at least four prisoners known to be on death row in Belarus. To mark World Day Against the Death Penalty Amnesty International is launching a campaign highlighting cases in Belarus, Ghana, Iran, Japan and Malaysia, where the death penalty is commonly used.
*Illustration above is of Minsk Pretrial Detention Centre No.1. Credit: George Butler
This story was originally published on Metro.co.uk