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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Attentive Press That Hurried An Execution

The Russian flag went up at the Council of Europe last week, just a little too late for Nikolai Pozhedayev, the death row prisoner I told you about last November. The Council recommends that its members abolish the death penalty, and Russia is now expected to phase in penal reform. But Nikolai was executed on Jan. 18.

The news of his death came as a shock to me and Igor Chichinov, a reporter in the central Russian town of Yelets who had written numerous articles about Nikolai and helped arrange my visit to him in prison. Sometimes the press helps people, but it appears that, in this case, our interference led directly to a man's death.

Nikolai was no saint. He was nicknamed "Ogonyok" (The Flame) because, with a gang of other thugs, he set fire to a truck after robbing and murdering the occupants. But he paid for his crime by suffering an agony of uncertainty that even some of his guards came to regard as inhuman.

While Nikolai's accomplices were sent to labor camp for 15 years each, he was given the death penalty in 1989. He appealed for mercy to Mikhail Gorbachev and was refused. At that point, he could expect a bullet in the back of the head fairly swiftly, and he prepared himself accordingly.

Then in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Nikolai was encouraged to appeal again, now to Boris Yeltsin. Advised by an independent commission, the new president was commuting many death sentences, in contrast to past Soviet leaders who had executed an average of 700 convicts per year.

But Nikolai received no answer, neither yes or no. His file was apparently lost. For six years, he waited in limbo.

When I first met him, he said: "I thought it would be quick, but it has dragged on. I hear noises in the corridor and think the executioner has come. When you came, I thought maybe this is it. My mother comes to see me once a month. Each time I have said goodbye to her for the last time."

Nikolai was as sad as he was frightening. He had been in and out of custody since the age of 11. His father had also been a convicted murderer.

Chichinov's aim in writing about Nikolai was to get his fate clarified. A decision could mean death, of course, but since the number of executions had fallen under Yeltsin, Chichinov assumed Nikolai's sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment.

The local court in Yelets told Chichinov: "We received so many letters as a result of your articles that we thought it was time to decide the Pozhedayev case. Thank you for your useful work." Said Chichinov: "You can imagine how I felt."

Nikolai may turn out to be one of the last people to be executed in Russia. The authorities' thinking in his case remains a mystery.

Members of the commission that advises Yeltsin say the president has been harsher on criminals since last year's murder of the popular broadcaster Vladislav Listyev. The coming elections may be increasing the pressure on Yeltsin to appear tough on crime.

Practical considerations may also have played a role. Today Russia has 710 death row prisoners but only one-sixth of the number of high-security jails needed to keep them for life. Russia's overcrowded prisons are in economic crisis like the rest of the country. Quite simply, Nikolai dead is one less mouth to feed.