Outcry fails to prevent Belarus executions

Activist in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow, 2004
Image caption Activists are demanding pressure on Belarus to ditch the death penalty

Belarus is to go ahead with the execution of two men currently on death row, despite international pressure on the country to abandon the practice.

President Alexander Lukashenko has made tentative attempts to improve relations with Western Europe, but the death penalty remains an obstacle.

The convicted men - Oleg Grishkovtsov and Andrei Burdyko, from Grodno in western Belarus - could be executed at any time, after the country's Supreme Court turned down appeals from the pair.

Their relatives will only find out that the executions have taken place by an official letter confirming their deaths, and will not be told where the bodies are buried.

The two men were found guilty of killing three people during an armed robbery in a flat in Grodno last year.

They were also found guilty of taking a child hostage in the course of the robbery and setting the flat on fire, before forcing a taxi driver to help them to flee the crime scene.

Belarus is the only country in Europe which continues to execute convicted criminals, and it sparked widespread condemnation when it executed two convicted murderers in March 2010.

And as recently as 14 September another death sentence was handed out.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International has long criticised the country's continued use of capital punishment.

In March, Amnesty called on President Alexander Lukashenko to establish an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

The death penalty can only be struck off the constitution by Mr Lukashenko or the parliament in Minsk.

'Public support'

However, the government insists there is public support for the death penalty, which is usually carried out by a single gunman delivering a point-blank shot to the head.

In a referendum in 1996 more than 80% of voters backed capital punishment.

Analysts say that the authorities have since used this vote to stifle public discussion of the issue.

Opinion polls suggest that at least two-thirds of Belarusians believe that the sort of criminals who are sentenced to death cannot be rehabilitated.

Human rights activists have had little success in garnering support, and one online petition against the death penalty was signed by just 318 Belarusians in an entire year.

The country's population is more than nine million.

Price for dialogue

The government has been engaged in a very gradual discussion with the Council of Europe about "possible steps towards a moratorium and removal of the death penalty" in Belarus.

The matter is also being raised at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, with delegates from Belarus defending executions.

They believe the creation of a working group in parliament and their readiness to discuss a moratorium with the Council of Europe should work in their favour.

Abolishing the death penalty is one of the mandatory conditions the EU is demanding from Belarus in order for it to start official political dialogue with the country.

However, human rights activist Valentin Stefanovich says that Europe should not hold its breath: "Recent signals from inside the government have made it clear that we should not be expecting a moratorium on capital punishment anytime soon."

The UN Human Rights Council has also been sounding the alarm for more than 10 years about how the Belarusian authorities treat the relatives of those executed.

Families are not given the opportunity to say goodbye or pick up their loved-ones' belongings. They are also not told where the executed are buried, and authorities do not release the bodies for private funerals.

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