Russian court forbids use of death penalty
St. Petersburg — Russia cannot apply the death penalty even after a moratorium expires next year, a court ruled Thursday, effectively banning the use of capital punishment in the country for good.
However, politicians warned it was too soon to formally abolish the death penalty as public opinion — which is strongly in favour of capital punishment — was not ready for such a move.
The end of the judicial moratorium on January 1 "does not make it possible to apply the death penalty on the whole of Russia’s territory," Constitutional Court president Valery Zorkin said in his ruling.
"This decision is final and may not be appealed," he said of the ruling, which came after a request for a decision from country’s Supreme Court.
Zorkin said the death sentence in Russia was now "impossible" because Moscow has signed international protocols banning the use of capital punishment.
Russia has observed a moratorium on the death penalty since 1999 when the Constitutional Court ordered it could not be applied until people in every Russian region had access to jury trials.
From January 1, the Caucasus region of Chechnya will be the last Russian region to introduce jury trials.
The death penalty "was an archaic measure that did nothing to solve the problem of crime," prominent human rights lawyer Mara Polyakova told AFP.
"This decision brings us closer to Europe and to the whole of the civilized world."
The spokesman of the Supreme Court, Pavel Odintsov, said the "supreme court had ended the dispute about the future fate of the death penalty."
Russia is obliged to abolish the death penalty as a member of the Council of Europe.
It has signed the corresponding protocol of the European Human Rights Convention but the document has yet to be ratified by Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma.
"The Constitutional Court has taken its decision, it is now the Duma’s turn to speak," Zorkin told reporters after the ruling. "No one can force the Duma’s hand."
The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, hailed the court’s decision as a "further step towards abolition of the death penalty in Russia."
But Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who currently heads the Council’s ministerial committee, urged the Russian parliament to now ratify the human rights convention.
Opinion polls have found that a huge majority of Russians support the death penalty, with an online poll by the Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid in September finding 80 percent in favour.
"Society must be ready… It’s a long process," said Mikhail Krotov, President Dmitry Medvedev’s envoy to the Constitutional Court.
"Society needs time to accept the need to abolish the penalty of death," he said, adding that comparative studies have shown capital punishment is not effective in dissuading criminality.
Krotov has said the Kremlin is in favour of a "stage-by-stage ban" on the death penalty while strongman leader Vladimir Putin has called capital punishment "pointless and counterproductive".
Any formal abolition of the death penalty would have to be approved by parliament and then formalized via a presidential decree.
Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said the court’s ruling was not a surprise, but said it was "unrealistic" to expect the parliament would now ratify the 6th Protocol of the European Convention on the abolition of the death penalty.
"Innocent people have been executed in the past and in such cases judicial errors are irreversible," said Boris Strashun, a professor of constitutional law at Moscow State Law Academy.
"Our society is progressing. I think the time will come when people will approve of this decision," he added.
After the Duma failed to ratify the rights treaty in 1996, then-president Boris Yeltsin decreed a stay on executions. Since then there have been no executions, though the punishment remains in Russia’s legal code.
In 1996, the last year when the death sentence was implemented, those executed included serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who was convicted of killing 52 women and children.