Alex Harpe

Will Russia bring back the death penalty?

on 11 November 2009

Russia has changed a great deal over the last two decades. One of the welcome changes was the introduction in 1996 of a moratorium on the death penalty.

In 1999 the anti-death penalty movement in Russia gained a further boost when the Constitutional Court ruled that no Russian Court could sentence an individual to death until all courts in Russia had switched to jury trials. This objective will be met on 1 January 2010 when Chechnya becomes the final Russian Republic to introduce trial by jury.

Once this happens there will no longer be any legal bars to resuming executions in Russia. The Constitutional Court has therefore accepted a request from the Supreme Court for an official interpretation on the status of the death penalty in Russia.

The reintroduction of Capital Punishment in Russia has far wider repercussions than a national reintroduction of the death penalty. Russia still maintains a huge amount of influence in neighbouring states and in addition is steadily expanding its influence in areas of the developing world.

Any move by Russia to reintroduce the death penalty will invariably play a role in how other countries view this barbaric and ineffectual form of punishment. In this way the Russian Constitutional Court is currently considering a matter that has consequences reaching far beyond Russia’s borders.

There is also the matter of the Council of Europe, which requires its members to place a moratorium on executions and to work towards abolishing the death penalty as a legal option. How would the Council react to Russia reintroducing the death penalty?

This is something that we can only speculate on, but the cynic in me suspects that there will be official admonitions, perhaps public statements that this is unacceptable, but more for the sake of placating expected critics and without the will or intention to prevent the practice.

Would Russia be suspended from the Council? I doubt it. How will other Council members react who also have strong public support for the death penalty? Hopefully with a level of common sense and compassion we should be able to expect from modern governments; but in reality more likely with thoughts of using the reintroduction of the death penalty as a way to garner the populist vote in the next election.

Perhaps ironically for a long-established populist Russian politician Putin stated very well a strong argument against the death penalty when he said “by using the death penalty in relation to its citizens, even criminals, the state educates its citizens in cruelty and brings forth new cruelty on the part of citizens in relation to each other and in relation to the state itself”.

Russia maintains a disproportionately high level of global influence. They would do well towards justifying this if the Russian Court in this case let humanity and common sense prevail by refraining from educating the world, and more specifically the Russian people, in cruelty.

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