Note to journalists: B-roll and still images to accompany this story are available for download from our Multimedia Newsroom.
As many as three of the four men on death row in the Belarusian capital Minsk have been executed in a shameful purge since 5 November, Amnesty International revealed today after confirming with local activists.
Hard on the heels of this news the organization is launching a new online petition and video aimed at stamping out the use of the death penalty in Belarus – the last country in Europe and the former Soviet Union to still carry out executions.
“Purging death row of its prisoners is an appalling measure for any country to take. But it is additionally shameful in Belarus, where executions are typically shrouded in secrecy and carried out at a moment’s notice,” said Aisha Jung, Campaigner on Belarus at Amnesty International, who recently returned from Minsk.
Purging death row of its prisoners is an appalling measure for any country to take. But it is additionally shameful in Belarus, where executions are typically shrouded in secrecy and carried out at a moment’s notice.Aisha Jung, Campaigner on Belarus at Amnesty International
“This sudden spike in executions is especially surprising in Belarus, the death penalty’s final frontier in Europe, since many believed the country was on track to eliminate capital punishment for good.”
According to the Belarusian NGO Viasna, since 5 November, Siarhei Khmialeuski, Ivan Kulesh and possibly Hyanadz Yakavitski have all been executed with a gunshot to the back of the head. The fate of the fourth man on death row, Siarhei Vostrykau, hangs in the balance following his death sentence on 19 May.
On 29 November, relatives of 31-year-old Siarhei Khmialeuski arrived at the SIZO No.1 prison in Minsk to visit him on death row, only to be informed he had been executed on an unknown date in recent weeks. They had not received letters from him for more than a month, but the prison administration accepted a payment in his name last week. His death sentence had been upheld by the Supreme Court on 6 May, for the murder of at least two people in the capital Minsk.
Siarhei Khmialeuski’s execution came swiftly after two others in recent weeks.
Ivan Kulesh, who had his death sentence upheld on 29 March for murder and robbery, was executed on 5 November. Hyanadz Yakavitski, sentenced to death on 5 January for the murder of his partner, is also believed to have been executed this month – his fate will be revealed in the coming days when his daughter attempts to visit him on death row.
The sudden string of executions comes after a long hiatus in Belarus. Before this month, only one person had been executed since November 2014 – Siarhei Ivanou on 18 April 2016.
In Belarus, the relatives of death row prisoners are typically not given advance warning or granted a final meeting before an execution takes place. In keeping with Belarusian law, the bodies of the executed are not returned to relatives for burial and their place of burial is not disclosed.
In many cases, families first learn of their relative’s death when they receive a parcel with the loved one’s prison boots and death row uniform. They are required to collect death certificates from the Belarusian authorities.
Data on the use of the death penalty in Belarus is classified as a state secret. Secrecy around the use of the death penalty constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of the condemned person and their family members.
“Belarusian authorities take the inherent injustice of the death penalty to appalling extremes. The justice system puts immense psychological strain on the families of those it puts to death,” said Aisha Jung.
Belarusian authorities take the inherent injustice of the death penalty to appalling extremes. The justice system puts immense psychological strain on the families of those it puts to death.Aisha Jung
“Our campaign is calling on Belarusian authorities to join the rest of Europe and a majority of countries around the world by introducing an immediate moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty.”
The exact number of executions in Belarus is unknown, but local human rights defenders and journalists have worked tirelessly to uncover some information about death sentences and executions.
According to the Ministry of Justice of Belarus, 245 people were sentenced to death from 1994 to 2014. Human rights NGOs believe that around 400 people have been executed since the country gained its independence in 1991.
In 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee found that the secrecy surrounding the death penalty in Belarus amounts to inhuman treatment of the families and is a violation of Article 7 (the prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Belarus is a state party.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases and under any circumstances. The death penalty violates the right to life as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.