Russian Court Extends Death Penalty Moratorium

Russia's Constitutional Court in St. Petersburg. Source: AP/Dmitry LovetskyRussia’s Constitutional Court has ruled to extend a moratorium on the death penalty. The moratorium, which had been set to expire in January 2010, will be extended until Russia ratifies a European protocol to ban it altogether.

Chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin stated that the decision corresponds to international norms agreed to by Russia that ban or recommend banning the use of capital punishment.

Zorkin also noted that it was only by entering into recognizances to abolish the death penalty that Russia was accepted into the Council of Europe in 1996.

The Constitutional Court ruled in 1999 that the death penalty may only be introduced in Russia when jury trials were implemented throughout the country. With Thursday’s ruling, the one remaining region without jury trials, Chechnya, will introduce them by January 2010. Zorkin stated, however, that “this will not allow the possibility for use of the death penalty,” effectively banning the practice.

Public reaction to the decision has been mixed.

Soviet dissident and prominent human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva praised the court’s decision in a statement to Reuters. “I hope the death penalty does not return in Russia, even though the majority of the population and the majority of lawmakers support it,” she said. “In a country with such a cruel history and where human life meant so little for so long, there is nothing surprising in the fact that the majority of people support the death penalty”.

According to Mikhail Krotov, presidential envoy to the Constitutional Court, Russia has yet to completely ban the death penalty because of strong public support for the practice. “The society needs more time to ban the death penalty, but the government structures support a ban on capital punishment,” he said.

While the death penalty has not been used in Russia since 1996, various polls estimate support among Russians for capital punishment to be between 50 and 80 percent. Support for the practice thrives despite denouncements from prominent politicians and other public figures. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called the death penalty “pointless and counterproductive,” and has stressed the importance for Russia to be accepted in the international community despite public opinion.

Human rights activist Evgeny Ikhlov said the court’s decision did not go far enough and decried it as politically motivated. By deliberating on the use of the death penalty and not on the legal issue of its very existence, he says that the court “wiggled out of the situation” to avoid the political consequences of Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe, while failing to ban the practice outright. “The Constitutional Court does not have a right to make political statements, only legal ones,” Ikhlov said.