Republic of Belarus
Methods of Execution
Typically, prisoners are executed within hours or even minutes of learning that their clemency application has been denied. The authorities carry out executions in secret and refuse to release the bodies of executed prisoners to their families. Relatives may be informed of the execution by letter weeks or months after the event. Article 175 of the Criminal Executive Code of the Republic of Belarus also allows for the government not to communicate the place of burial of those executed to their relatives. In October 2012, the U.N. Human Rights Committee found that this policy violates the human rights of the convicted and their families.
Number of Individuals On Death Row
Alyaksandr Asipovic was sentenced to death in January 2019, joining Viachaslau Sukharko who remained on death row after Aliaksandr Zhylnikau was executed in secret in June 2019. Viktar Paulau was sentenced to death in July 2019 and Viktar Syarhel was sentenced to death on October 25, 2019.
In Belarus, data on the use of the death penalty is classified as a state secret, so our data may be incomplete.
(This question was last updated on October 28, 2019.).
Annual Number of Reported Executions in Last Decade
Executions in 2019
Does the country’s constitution mention capital punishment?
Offenses Punishable by Death
According to art. 59(1) of the Criminal Code of Belarus, which contemplates eventual abolition of the death penalty, only aggravated murder may be punished by death. A number of provisions permit the death penalty for actions that can be correctly characterized as aggravated murder, but it is probably unjustified to characterize some of them as aimed at aggravated murder. Instead, they seem aimed at Belarus' interest in deterring persons in its government, military and citizenry from initiating violent action that would provide casus belli for another state or group of states to wage war against Belarus. Recidivism of grave offenses justifies a finding under Article 43 that the offender is particularly dangerous, which could support a death sentence and help overcome the requirement of Article 62 that the most lenient, effective sentence be pronounced.
Terrorism-Related Offenses Resulting in Death.
- A murder of a representative of a foreign state or international organization with the aim of provoking war.
- International terrorism. Presumably this will be limited to international terrorism that results in death, although this section standing alone would permit the death penalty for international terrorism not resulting in death.
- (Domestic) terrorism or political violence resulting in death.
- Sabotage resulting in death.
- Use of weapons of mass destruction.
War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide.
Violations of the laws or customs of war intentionally causing death is punishable by death. Initiating or waging aggressive war is also punishable by death. This law appears to address wars against other nations rather than wars against Belarus.
Deportation, illegal detention, enslavement, mass or systematic extrajudicial executions, abductions, followed by their disappearance, torture and atrocities committed in relation to race, nationality, ethnicity, political beliefs or religious faith of the civilian population are all punishable by death.
Genocide is punishable by death.
Which offenses carry a mandatory death sentence, if any?
Categories of Offenders Excluded From the Death Penalty
Persons who become mentally ill after sentencing are excluded from application of the death penalty (and any other punishment) where the mental illness deprives them of the ability to understand the actual nature and significance of their actions or control them. If they recover, punishment is pursued, without prejudice to the statute of limitations.
Offenses For Which Individuals Have Been Executed In the Last Decade
The Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus provides that the death penalty applies only to aggravated murder, and reports of recent years’ executions indicate that offenders have been executed for crimes such as murder sprees, assault and murder committed during an armed robbery, or rape and murder of a minor.
Have there been any significant published cases concerning the death penalty in national courts?
Appeals to Belarus'' Supreme Court have been unsuccessful in challenging the death penalty. The recent challenge in the case of Vasily (Vasil) Yusepchuk (Yuzepchuk) involved allegations that authorities tortured a confession out of an intellectually disabled suspect. The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.
On 11 March 2004, the Constitutional Court, following a request by the House of Representatives of the National Assembly to assess the compatibility of the Constitution of Belarus and the international treaties ratified by Belarus with the Criminal Code provisions providing for the death penalty, found that some provisions of the Code were inconsistent with the Constitution. Namely, articles 48(1)(11) and 59 of the Criminal Code were found to be inconsistent with the Constitution due to their lack of reference to the temporary character of the death penalty. The court also found that article 24(3) of the Constitution of Belarus, which allows the death penalty to be applied only until its abolition, makes both complete abolition and a moratorium on executions equally permissible.
Does the country’s constitution make reference to international law?
Yes. The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus guarantees the supremacy of universally acknowledged principles of international law, and states that Belarus may not enter into international treaties that violate its constitution. This provision probably indicates that international law can influence human rights protections but cannot reduce them below the threshold acceptable in Belarus'' constitution. The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus provides that citizens may be extradited by an international treaty. The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus guarantees equal rights and obligations to foreigners except as defined by international law.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, Recognizing Jurisdiction of the Human Rights Committee
Date of Signature
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR)
Protocol to the ACHPR on the Rights of Women in Africa
ACHPR Women Party?
ACHPR Women Signed?
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
ACHPR Child Party?
ACHPR Child Signed?
Arab Charter on Human Rights
Arab Charter on Human Rights
Arab Charter Party?
Arab Charter Signed?
Comments and Decisions of the U.N. Human Rights System
In two contentious cases, the UN Human Rights Committee determined that the secrecy surrounding executions in Belarus amounts to a violation of Belarus' international treaty obligations under Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects against torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. The HRC further determined that the failure to notify the condemned and his family of the time and place of his execution, the failure to render the body of the condemned to the family, and the failure to disclose the condemned's place of burial all constitute violations of Article 7 of the ICCPR. Belarus has not changed its practices in response to the HRC's decisions.
In October 2012, the Human Rights Committee concluded that in the case of Vladislav Kovalev, there had been violations of the right to life, the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial and access to an effective judicial review, as well as inhuman treatment with regard to his family due to the secrecy surrounding the execution and the refusal to release his body. In his April 2013 report, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus noted with concern that Belarus “systematically dismisses the Committee’s views.”
It should be mentioned that Belarus has repeatedly proceeded with executions where the prisoner’s case was being considered by the Human Rights Committee, thus disregarding the Committee’s request that Belarus not carry out the executions while the case was pending (this happened in 2012, 2011 and 2010). In all five of these cases there were allegations that the right to a fair trial had been violated, and three of the individuals claimed that they had confessed under duress.
Comments and Decisions of Regional Human Rights Systems
Belarus is the only country in Europe that is not a member of the Council of Europe, and thus not a State Party to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Therefore, it is not subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. Both the Council of Europe and the European Union have repeatedly urged Belarus to abolish the death penalty and to ensure respect for the right to a fair trial and other fundamental rights. In 2009, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to restore Special Guest Status to the Belarusian Parliament, on the condition that Belarus declare a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty.
In a June 2013 statement, the U.N. Human Rights Council expressed “deep concern at continuing violations of human rights in Belarus, which are of a structural and endemic nature, and also at the systemic and systematic restrictions on human rights, especially in the case of … guarantees of due process and fair trial, and expresses particular concern at the use of torture and ill-treatment in custody, the lack of response by the Government to cases of enforced disappearance of political opponents, … the impunity of perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses, the harassment of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents, [and] pressure on defence lawyers.”
In his April 2013 report, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus listed developments that could be “seen as signs of openness towards possible reform.” On December 20, 2012, a parliamentary working group had been re-established to consider the issue of the death penalty, and the Chairman of the Constitutional Court had stated several times in early 2013 that the question of a moratorium remained open. However, the report also characterized appeals procedures in capital cases as “inadequate.” After noting with concern that Belarus systematically ignores the conclusions of the Human Rights Committee, which has found violations of international law in Belarus’s conduct of capital cases, the Special Rapporteur concluded that “the way the death penalty is carried out in Belarus amounts to inhuman treatment.” The Rapporteur also deplored that “the rule of law in Belarus is critically undermined by non-transparent court proceedings that can end up in executions without any meaningful legal guarantee.”
The U.N. Committee Against Torture, in its last consideration of the report submitted by Belarus, recommended that it “should take all necessary measures to improve the conditions of detention of persons on death row, and to ensure they are afforded all the protections provided by the Convention. Furthermore, it should remedy the secrecy and arbitrariness surrounding executions so that family members do not have added uncertainty and suffering. The Committee also recommends the State party to consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.”
The recommendations of the Human Rights Council’s 2010 Universal Periodic Review of human rights in Belarus included: declaring a moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty; making public information regarding the death penalty’s application; commuting all death sentences to prison sentences; and ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR. Belarus rejected these recommendations, arguing that public opinion was favorable to retention. However, it showed willingness to continue cooperation with the international community on this matter and to consider abolition, by means of a parliamentary working group and of awareness-raising campaigns. It accepted the recommendation that, “as long as the death penalty is not abolished and continues to be carried out, [it would] respect minimum standards in this regard, and in particular ensure that the death penalty is applied only for the most serious criminal offences.”
Availability of Lawyers for Indigent Defendants at Trial
By law, indigent defendants have access to court-appointed counsel. In practice, that right is sometimes not respected. Additionally, UN fact-finding missions indicate that court-appointed attorneys often refuse to be present at interrogations if their indigent clients are not able to pay for in-jail visits. Defendants seeking proceedings in Belarusian rather than in Russian are sometimes denied access to lawyers and interpreters. Belarusian judges and prosecutors are, generally, not fluent in Belarusian.
Availability of Lawyers for Indigent Defendants on Appeal
Yes, but the right to counsel is sometimes not respected, particularly when a defendant requests proceedings in Belarusian instead of in Russian. Additionally, reviewing courts usually determine the result of appeals without a hearing, and reviewing courts uphold lower court verdicts in the vast majority of cases.
Quality of Legal Representation
Legal representation may be nonexistent for defendants who request proceedings in Belarusian instead of in Russian. Legal representation may be ineffective during the appeals process because reviewing courts generally do not hold hearings and instead simply conduct their own review of court documents and protocol. Additionally, detainees indicate that court-appointed attorneys for indigent defendants demand to be paid to be present during interrogations. Attorneys have difficulty gaining pre-trial access to evidence and expertise, and detainees indicate that state-appointed counsel are ineffective. As a matter of practice, investigators interview detainees outside the presence of defense lawyers. Defense attorneys have limited or nonexistent access to prosecutorial evidence and expertise and thus have difficulty preparing and executing a defense. Courts often permit the state to present as evidence the information coerced during illegal interrogations. Investigators have almost complete discretion to determine pre-trial conditions such as detention and the scope of the accused''s communications with the outside world. Courts exercise only procedural review over whether an investigator''s decisions are proper. The executive exercises significant control over the bar association, and attorneys who have opposed executive policies on human rights grounds have been stripped of their licenses to practice law.
Capital defendants appeal to the Supreme Court, and must file an application for clemency within 10 days of the Supreme Court''s rejection of an appeal. However, in at least two terrorism cases, the defendants were sentenced to death by the Supreme Court acting as the court of first and only instance, leaving no recourse for an appeal to a higher court. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus noted in his April 2013 report that the procedure for appeals was “inadequate”.
According to the Criminal Code, the death penalty may, by means of a pardon, be commuted to life imprisonment. The President has the power to grant pardons to convicted persons. Appeals are initially considered by a Clemency Commission. All death sentences are automatically considered, whether or not the sentenced person requests it. The current President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has stated that he personally reviews all death penalty cases before the sentences are carried out.
Availability of jury trials
There is no jury for persons charged with capital murder. In capital cases judges adjudicate with the assistance of two civilian advisors called People''s Assessors. A Constitutional Court ruling that preserves the institution of People''s Assessors over that of a jury defines assessors as judges and provides for significant executive branch control of eligibility for the position of People''s Assessor. Although the use of common citizens as People''s Assessors in capital cases does seem similar to use of a jury, Belarus does not preserve the usual distinction between judge and jury and seems to reserve control of jury selection to its executive rather than to the adversarial process.
Systemic Challenges in the Criminal Justice System
Reports continue to be received of the use of torture and other ill-treatment by police and investigators in order to extort confessions that are then used as evidence in trial proceedings. In such cases, there is evidence of a failure by officials to conduct prompt, impartial and full investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment and to prosecute alleged perpetrators. This was of particular concern to the Human Rights Committee in the Kavalyou (Kovalev) death penalty case. Uladzslau Kavalyou, who was executed in March 2012 after being convicted of a bomb attack, tried to retract his confession, which he claimed had been obtained under threats of being shot. His mother, Lubou Kavalyoua, said that both he and his co-defendant had been beaten during interrogation.
Pre-trial detention is overcrowded, and suspects and defendants are confined in facilities that lack conditions for basic hygiene and where tuberculosis is prevalent. Diet and medical care are poor. Communication with the outside world is highly restricted or nonexistent, and suspects are pressured to self-incriminate.
In practice, defendants are required to prove their innocence, and defendants are sometimes not permitted or given the opportunity to attend proceedings, confront witnesses, or present their own evidence. Capital adjudication is sometimes arbitrary, with some capital defendants receiving lenient or negligible sentences for brutal, premeditated and not legally justified murders, with others receiving death sentences despite compelling evidence of coerced confessions and inferior capacity.
Prosecutors, investigators and the judiciary are highly controlled by the executive, and UN fact-finding missions have concluded that Belarus is an authoritarian state with power highly centralized in an executive that does not comply with the Constitution or laws of Belarus. Attempts by the Constitutional Court to limit executive control and enforce constitutional limitations have been met by dismissal of the Court by the president and appointment of a new Court. The executive may dismiss most judges, and the executive has limited access to legal licenses, excluding from criminal practice attorneys who oppose executive policy.
There were serious doubts about the fairness of the trial provided to the two men sentenced to death in November 2011 (namely, suspicions that the confessions were coerced and the lack of a possibility of appeal, since they were sentenced to death by the Supreme Court, acting as court of first instance). This led to appeals by European institutions and human rights organizations, urging Belarus not to carry out the executions and to grant the prisoners a new, fair trial (the appeals were ignored and the men were eventually executed in March 2012).
Belarus has ignored appeals by the U.N. Human Rights Council to release political prisoners and “to put an immediate end to arbitrary detention of human rights defenders.” Several human rights activists are currently imprisoned, including Ales Bialiatski, a leading human rights defender who has been imprisoned since August 2011 and convicted of questionable tax evasion offenses.
Where Are Death-Sentenced Prisoners incarcerated?
Description of Prison Conditions
According to the International Federation for Human Rights, condemned prisoners are kept in a ward that was designed for pre-trial detention. Their cells are roughly two by three meters, are designed to house multiple inmates, and contain open holes as toilets. Prisoners are confined to their cells except for a weekly walk. The pre-trial ward is in the basement of the Minsk detention center and does not receive any sunlight. Prisoners'' cells are artificially illuminated for 24 hours a day. Prisoners are not permitted to send or receive correspondence or parcels, and are not permitted to view television. The U.N. Committee Against Torture has expressed concern over the poor conditions of persons sentenced to death, the lack of fundamental legal safeguards and the secrecy and arbitrariness surrounding the executions. Neither the prisoners nor their families or lawyers are informed in advance of the forthcoming execution. After a prisoner has exhausted the appeals process, which typically takes 6 to 18 months, he has 10 days to apply for clemency. Upon the president''s rejection of a prisoner''s application for clemency, the prisoner is taken into a room where the Director of the prison and another Interior employee inform the prisoner his application has been rejected. The prisoner is then taken to another room, forced to his knees, and shot in the back of the head. Families are notified of the execution after it has been carried out. The bodies of the executed are not returned to their families for burial; they are buried in unmarked graves that are kept secret.
Foreign Nationals Known to Be on Death Row
What are the nationalities of the known foreign nationals on death row?
Juvenile Offenders Known to Be on Death Row
Racial / Ethnic Composition of Death Row
Our research indicates that despite constitutional protections, an ethnic Russian minority may control an essentially authoritarian state where an increasingly impoverished ethnic Belarusian majority does not enjoy important civil and political rights. There is reason to believe this imbalance affects death penalty outcomes. In some cases aggravated murders of Belarusians by Belarusians have been treated with leniency, while other murders that cross class and potentially ethnic boundaries have been punished with the death penalty even in the presence of factors that suggest the diminished responsibility of the offender. A number of death-eligible offenses in Belarus'' criminal code -especially crimes such as international and domestic terrorism and acts likely to trigger domestic conflict or serve as a casus belli for Russian forces- may involve crimes most likely to be committed against ethnic Russians.
Recent Developments in the Application of the Death Penalty
The scope of death-eligible crimes has been reduced in recent years. The Criminal Code has restricted grave offenses punishable by death to aggravated murder. In 1999, the number of death-eligible crimes was reduced to 14, including 2 that can only be committed during war time. Since 1981, the death penalty has only been applied to cases of murder with aggravating circumstances and to two offenders convicted of a bombing on the Minsk metro station.
The number of death sentences has also decreased in recent years. Since 1998 the number of death sentences has dropped considerably. While 47 death sentences were handed down in 1998, only 2 were handed down in 2008, 2 in 2010, 0 in 2012 and so far 3 in 2013.
In his April 2013 report, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus noted developments that could be “seen as signs of openness towards possible reform.” The Rapporteur noted that on December 20, 2012, a parliamentary working group had been re-established to consider the issue of the death penalty, and that the Chairman of the Constitutional Court had stated several times in early 2013 that the question of a moratorium remained open.
However, some Belarussian politicians have been outspoken about resisting international pressure to abolish the death penalty. In June 2013, Nikolai Samoseiko, Chairman of the Permanent Commission for International Affairs of the House of Representatives of Belarus, stated that Belarus would “not tolerate any pressure from outside…in the form of sanctions and ultimatums” on the question of abolition.
Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2020 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2018 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2016 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2014 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2012 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2010 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2008 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
Member(s) of World Coalition Against the Death Penalty
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Mr. Oleg Gulak, Chairman
Ms. Yuliya Khlashchankova, International Coordinator
Karl Liebkneht Str., 68, Office 1201
Tel: +375 29 590 84 40
Fax: +375 17 2224801
Other Groups and Individuals Engaged in Death Penalty Advocacy
Radio Free Europe (http://www.rferl.org) and Impunity Watch (http://www.impunitywatch.net) are sources that might provide continuous coverage of the situation in Belarus, in addition to the usual international sources. The UN has observed that there is limited human rights advocacy in Belarus, and the Belarusian executive branch engages in thoroughgoing oppression, including arbitrary detention, politically motivated prosecutions, and possibly murders of individuals who oppose the administration on human rights grounds. The rights to expression and assembly are limited. Some human rights promoters have fled the country. The Belarus branch of Human Rights House (http://humanrightshouse.org/Members/Belarus/index.html) no longer operates from inside Belarus, and, as of March 2012, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (http://www.belhelcom.org/?q=en) and the Human Rights Center “Viasna” (www.spring96.org), whose leader is now in prison, seem to be the sole remaining human rights oriented non-governmental organizations in Belarus.
Where are judicial decisions reported?
In Belarus, the death penalty is classified as state secret. Belarus appears to be in the process of creating a legal databank that will contain the decisions of its courts. The decisions of the Constitutional Court of Belarus are available at: http://www.kc.gov.by/main.aspx?guid=1061. However, the Supreme Court of Belarus is the ultimate court of appeal for actual controversies brought by individuals, while the Constitutional Court reviews legislation and similar actions at the government''s request. A researcher should likely review decisions of the Supreme Court to determine precedent on the death penalty in Belarus, and a search of Constitutional Court decisions is unlikely to be sufficient.
Helpful Reports and Publications
Law.by is the national legal internet portal for Belarus, and a useful indicator of current legislative and executive developments in Belarus.
For a thorough review of the human rights violations which occurred during one capital case, see the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Communication on the case of Vladislav Kovalev, executed in 2012 for his participation in bombing a metro station in Minsk, available at: U.N. ICCPR, Human Rights Committee, Kovaleva v. Balrus, Communication No. 2120/2011, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/106/D/2120/2011, http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/482/78/PDF/G1248278.pdf?OpenElement, Nov. 27, 2012.
Intl. Federation for Human Rights, Conditions of Detention in the Republic of Belarus, No. 500/2, Sep. 2, 2008.
Additional notes regarding this country
Belarus is the only retentionist country in Europe. It is also the only country in Europe which is not a member of the Council of Europe, and thus not a State Party to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms or any of its Protocols. International organizations like the Council of Europe, the European Union and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, along with human rights groups, have continuously urged Belarus to abolish the death penalty and to ensure respect for the right to a fair trial and other fundamental rights. However, Belarus continues to apply and to execute death sentences, undermining the credibility of its professed willingness to engage in the development of political dialogue with Europe.
Our research also indicates that despite constitutional protections, an ethnic Russian minority may control an essentially authoritarian state where an increasingly impoverished ethnic Belarusian majority does not enjoy important civil and political rights. There is reason to believe this imbalance affects death penalty outcomes. In some cases aggravated murders of Belarusians by Belarusians have been treated with leniency, while other murders that cross class and potentially ethnic boundaries have been punished with the death penalty even in the presence of factors that suggest the diminished responsibility of the offender. A number of death-eligible offenses in Belarus' criminal code ¬-especially crimes such as international and domestic terrorism and acts likely to trigger domestic conflict or serve as a casus belli for Russian forces- may involve crimes most likely to be committed against ethnic Russians.