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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow To Outlaw Executions By April '99

Russia's justice minister, under mounting pressure from the Council of Europe, said Tuesday that the death penalty will be completely abolished by April 1999.

Russia currently operates a de facto moratorium on capital punishment, but under the terms of its membership in the Council of Europe, it has to ratify a ban on the death penalty by February next year or face having its delegation excluded from the council's parliamentary assembly.

Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov, on a visit to the Volga River region of Saratov, said "the current moratorium on capital punishment will be replaced by its complete abolition in April 1999," Interfax reported. Krasheninnikov added: "We shall implement international agreements."

Any ban on capital punishment would have to be ratified by both houses of parliament. The opposition-led lower house, or State Duma, nixed a bill suspending the use of the death penalty in March 1997 and has since shown little inclination to approve total abolition.

However, Amnesty International, which campaigns for an end to the death penalty worldwide, welcomed the justice minister's statement, saying government backing for abolition could influence the Duma into ratifying a ban.

Mariana Katzarova, a researcher at Amnesty's London headquarters, said Krasheninnikov's statement Tuesday was reassuring, because several senior government figures have signaled this year that Russia cannot afford to abolish the death sentence because it has nowhere to house convicts serving life sentences. The justice minister himself said last month that Russia was not ready for abolition.

"We can only welcome a renewed willingness on the part of the government after, for a while, it withdrew its commitment to the Council of Europe," Katzarova said.

The Council of Europe deadline by which Russia must finally abolish capital punishment is Feb. 28. Under the schedule announced by Krasheninnikov, Russia will miss this deadline.

However, the council, the continent's leading human rights organization, has in the past been flexible when Russia has been late fulfilling its membership commitments and is not expected to take action against Russia in this case, provided the ban is ratified soon after the deadline passes.

Courts in Russia continue to issue the death sentence: There are currently 894 prisoners on death row around the country, according to Amnesty's figures. However, the government says no one has been executed since Yeltsin introduced the moratorium in August 1996.

Amnesty and the Council of Europe have insisted that a de facto ban enforced by presidential decree is not sufficient because it could be repealed when President Boris Yeltsin leaves office. "The guarantee that executions will not be carried out is hanging by a thread," said Amnesty's Katzarova. "The moratorium will only [function] as long as Yeltsin is alive."

When it was granted membership in the Council of Europe in February 1996, Russia took upon itself a commitment to phase out the death penalty. It pledged to place an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty, sign protocol No. 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which outlaws the death penalty, within a year, and ratify the protocol within three years.