Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 107

Russia’s new Justice Minister Pavel Krashennikov has set off a fresh row over the use of the death penalty. Last week, he declared that it was too soon for the country to abolish capital punishment and that opinion polls show that the majority of the Russian population oppose abolition. (Russian agencies, May 29) He repeated this view in a television interview last night. (NTV, June 3) His opinion counts both because responsibility for managing Russia’s prisons is due to pass to the Justice Ministry in the fall, and because Krashennikov is close to Russia’s powerful new Interior Minister, Sergei Stepashin. His view on capital punishment has also received unexpected support–on financial grounds–from Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

Krashennikov’s opinion is supported by Oleg Mironov, the Communist deputy who has just been elected as Russia’s human rights watchdog. Mironov said yesterday that he plans to ask the Duma to delete three out of the five articles in the Criminal Code that call for the death sentence, but that he will argue in favor of its retention for two crimes–genocide and premeditated murder in aggravating circumstances (e.g., rape). (Ekho Moskvy radio, June 3)

Krashennikov’s statements have prompted other high-ranking law officers to speak out in favor of abolition. The chairman of Russia’s Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, and the procurator general, Yuri Skuratov, have both pointed out that Russia undertook to abolish executions when it joined the Council of Europe in 1996, and that it must now carry out its international obligations. (Russian agencies, June 3)

No death sentences have been carried out in Russia since May 1996. Then, following Russia’s entry to the Council of Europe, President Boris Yeltsin decreed a moratorium on executions. The death sentence, however, remains enshrined in both the Constitution and the Civil Code, and the State Duma has repeatedly refused even to debate a bill that would convert Yeltsin’s moratorium into law. As a result, death sentences continue to be handed down by Russian courts at a rate of about 150 a year–but are not carried out. This creates many problems since Russian law makes no provision for those serving life sentences. New prisons have had to be found for 894 such prisoners now in this new kind of limbo. A new colony has just been opened in Mordovia. Built to house 300 prisoners, it so far has twenty inmates. It is the second such colony–the first was opened two years ago on an island in Vologda Oblast and already houses 150 prisoners. (Kontinent, No. 21, May 1998)

Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov expressed surprise support for a return to capital punishment when he complained about the mounting cost of housing prisoners condemned to death. If the present situation continues, he said, Russia will have 1,300 such prisoners by the year 2000, and at least two more colonies will have to be built to house them. This would cost the federal budget 580 million rubles–money that “just isn’t there.” Accordingly, Nemtsov said, the government shares the Duma’s view that it would be “inadvisable” to turn the moratorium into law at the present time. (Obshchaya gazeta, May 28; Ekho Moskvy, June 3)