Life or death: will Russia resume death penalty?

Russia’s moratorium on the death penalty expires early next year. While some want capital punishment outlawed completely, many still believe there are criminals who deserve it.

The arguments for and against the death penalty are well established. Most legal and criminal analysts insist capital punishment does little towards the problem of crime – what matters is the unavoidability of it.

Even though public support for the death penalty has fallen in Russia in recent years, several violent incidents in the past ten years keeps the issue very much in the limelight, making implementing a total ban a highly contentious issue.

The risk of a mistake

“The Butcher of Rostov” Andrey Chikatilo – the most infamous serial killer in Soviet history – was convicted of murdering 52 people, mostly women and children, and sentenced to death in 1994. His case is often quoted when Russians debate the merits of the death penalty – a subject that continues to ignite controversy.

State Duma deputy in 1994-1999 Valery Borshchev initiated a parliamentary hearing back in 1996, devoted to the moratorium on capital punishment. He is convinced its abolition benefits society and the justice system.

“The main problem is the shortcomings of our legal system – the risk of judicial error is too high,” he said.

“It is common knowledge that two people who were convicted by mistake before Chikatilo was found and proved guilty. During my own career I managed to prove the innocence of three people who were sentenced to death, and even the mother of the victims was helping me clear the names of the wrongly accused.”

Russia hasn’t performed an execution since the establishment of the moratorium thirteen years ago – one of the conditions for joining the Council of Europe.

However, with society polarized over the issue, lawmakers have been unable to pass legislation to outlaw the method completely.

Vladimir Lukin, Ombudsman for Human Rights, says he is against capital punishment.

“I understand that there are certain political conditions within the state that make its abolition difficult, but what matters right now is that Russia continues to refrain from using the death penalty.”

“They deserve an unmarked grave”

A decade of terrorist attacks across the country has prompted some to demand the death penalty for those involved.

The only surviving member of the group responsible for the Beslan tragedy in 2004 that left 331 people dead, 186 of those children, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Many of those who lost their loved ones believe that all that Nurpashi Kulayev deserves is an unmarked grave.

There has also been strong public pressure for the execution of convicted serial killers, murderers and child abusers.

Chief investigator in the Chikatilo case, Issa Kostoyev – the man responsible for the capture of the murderer – wonders:

“How can we talk of humanity when a person murders his parents, his own children or someone is dismembered, or a child is raped?”

In his opinion, given the crime rate in Russia, the country cannot afford not to use capital punishment.

“I think no one would deny the United States is a democracy, but they still use it when deemed necessary.”

The Kremlin is not in any hurry to see the controversial subject return to the political agenda, at least for now.

At the moment there are no plans to bring back the death penalty and revoke the moratorium, according to Natalya Timakova, spokeswoman to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Therefore, Russia is likely to stand by the ruling for the meantime.