In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, The First Circle, which depicts events occurring in December 1949, there is a scene in which General Viktor Abakumov, Minister of State Security, pays a late-night visit to Stalin’s windowless office. At one point in their conversation, Abakumov begins to plead with the dictator, “Give us back capital punishment, Iosif Vissarionovich!”
“One day soon I will give you back capital punishment,” Stalin promises his minion. “It will be a good educational measure.” After Abakumov has left the office, Stalin then reproaches himself: “More than anything else he had suffered during the last two years for having yielded to the impulse to brag to the West [over the USSR’s having officially abolished the death penalty].”
These passages from Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel came to mind when one read news reports that the Russian Deputy Prosecutor General, Nikolai Shepel, had, in summing up the prosecution’s case against accused Chechen terrorist Nurpasha Kulaev—the sole individual arrested at the time of the September 2004 Beslan hostage-taking event—demanded that the court sentence Kulaev to death. As a number of Russian journalists noted at the time, Shepel’s request was a strange one, since Russia under President Yeltsin had introduced a moratorium on the death penalty in 1996, when it joined the Council of Europe. Writing in the February 16 issue of the pro-democracy newspaper Novaya gazeta, journalist Dmitry Lyukaitis commented: “It is fully likely that the prosecutor’s declaration received prior approval from above. It could be used to prepare public opinion for a renewal of the practice of execution.” In the opinion of Lyukaitis and others, the Putin regime wants to begin executing its political opponents, and the Kulaev case can serve as a useful wedge issue in achieving this goal.
Pavel Krashennikov, a liberal former Russian justice minister who currently serves as the chair of the State Duma’s committee on legislation, termed Shepel’s plea to the court “inadmissible.” “There can be no exceptions to the rules,” he emphasized (Newsru.com, February 9). In similar fashion, the relatively liberal chair of the Council of the President of the Russian Federation to Assist the Development of the Institutions of a Civil Society and Human Rights, Ella Pamfilova, underlined her conviction that the problem of terrorism in Russia cannot be solved through reinstating the death penalty. She took note of the fact that “a majority of the inhabitants of Russia support a lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty,” but then added: “This is a case where the [Russian] leadership must go against the opinion of the majority” (Newsru.com, February 9).
Other Russian officials have been less categorical. In early February, President Vladimir Putin, responding to a question from Spanish journalists, “remarked that he is personally against the death penalty, but in dealing with this question, he will take into consideration the mood of society and of Russian citizens.” Putin was prepared to admit to the Spanish journalists that “There is no correction [of behavior] resulting from the use of the death penalty”—that is, it does serve as a deterrence to crime or terrorism. “It serves only as a punishment.” On the other hand, Putin also took note of the fact that there were “civilized” countries serving as a “bulwark of democracy,” for example, the United States and Japan, which carry out public executions. In addition to the opinion of the Russian citizenry, Putin added, he was required to take into the account “the opinion of the body of [Russian parliamentary] deputies” (Newsru.com, February 9).
It soon emerged that several leading deputies in the Russian Parliament favored a resumption of public executions. The influential first deputy speaker of the dominant pro-Putin parliamentary faction, “Edinaya Rossiya,” Lyubov Sliska, noted that public opinion in Russia supports a return to executions, especially given the “anarchy” prevalent in the country, as well as “the growth of crime and the activities of terrorists” (Nezavismaya gazeta, February 10).
In a similar vein, the powerful chair of the State Duma’s Committee on Security, Vladimir Vasiliev, a former deputy minister of the MVD, stated that the Duma is prepared to restore the death penalty “if society demands it” (Novaya gazeta, February 16). It should be remarked that since the regime fully controls state television it is in an excellent position to mold public opinion on this issue.
Directly related to the Kulaev case is the opinion of two feuding groups of Beslan Mothers, the relatives of the 330 hostages who perished during the school terrorist incident in early September 2004 (the Kremlin adroitly managed to split the two groups). One group, the Mothers of Beslan, whose leading spokeswoman is Susanna Dudieva, has come out strongly in support of Prosecutor Shepel’s demand that Kulaev be executed. Clearly favored by the Kremlin, this Mothers’ group was able to meet with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour when she visited Beslan on 22 February. They informed Arbour of their pro-execution views.
The other group of Mothers, “Voice of Beslan,” whose leading spokeswomen are Ella Kesaeva and Emma Tagaeva-Betrozova, appear not particularly interested in whether or not Kulaev is executed. They believe that it is the Russian power ministers and other top officials, who ordered and directed the bloody assault on the school on September 3, 2004, who need to be brought to trial. “We want to know why they began our ‘rescue’ with firing from flamethrowers at a gymnasium filled with children” (Gazeta.ru, February 18).
Upon closer scrutiny, it emerges that the Mothers of Beslan organization under Dudieva also wants key figures from the power ministries to be put on trial—for example, FSB General Aleksandr Tikhonov, head of the Center for Special Purpose based in Moscow, which spearheaded the assault on the school. They believe that Kulaev should be executed and then that the “basic case” should begin. They expressed this view in a letter to Putin that they handed to Ella Pamfilova who had accompanied Louise Arbour on her visit to Beslan. Yet Deputy Prosecutor General Shepel has already made it clear that, in the view of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the “basic case” with regard to Beslan does not involve Russian officials but rather Shamil Basaev and the late Aslan Maskhadov (Gazeta.ru, February 19).
The accused Nurpasha Kulaev asserted at the conclusion of his trial that his confession had been beaten out of him by investigators. “They beat me over the course of four months. I couldn’t stand on my feet” (Newizv.ru, February 17). Kulaev’s lawyer, Albert Pliev, in his summing up argument, noted that Russian law enforcement had not followed obligatory legal procedures when they arrested Kulaev: a transcript of his initial statement was not drawn up and his hands were not tested for gunpowder residue. There is, he said, no credible eyewitness evidence that Kulaev ever fired a weapon in the school (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 17). In a law-based state such gross infractions of legal procedures could serve to exempt an accused from the death penalty.
What is the Putin leadership seeking in seemingly pushing for a reinstatement of the death penalty, even at the cost of Russia’s possible expulsion from the Council of Europe? Writing in the February 16 issue of Novaya gazeta, journalist Leonid Nikitinsky observed: “Putin will wash his hands, hinting that ‘The people are always right.’ Even more will the leaders of the FSB, MVD and army rejoice… Putin will watch the reaction of the Council of Europe…If Russia is not expelled, then they can proceed further. And most likely Russia will not be expelled [because of the West’s acute need for oil and gas]. If Russia is not expelled for infringing the moratorium on the death penalty, then she can go further and refuse to accept the decisions of the Strasbourg court [the European Court for Human Rights].”
On 16 February, Tamerlan Aguzarov, the judge in the Kulaev case—there is no jury —retired to consider his verdict. No date was given for its announcement (Moscow Times, February 17).