Belarus is the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union that still executes death sentences.
The pronouncement and execution of death sentences is still considered a state secret in Belarus. As a result, it is difficult to provide accurate data on the number of death sentences imposed and executions carried out.
According to the Belarusian Human Rights House, at least 329 people were sentenced to death between 1990 and the end of 2015. Of these, 281 sentences were handed down between 1990 and 1999. After that, a downward trend was recorded: Between 2000 and 2013, “only” 50 people were sentenced to death. This is attributed to the amendment of the penal code in 1998, which allows life imprisonment as an alternative to pronouncing death sentences.
Developments in recent years
The year 2009 was the first execution-free year in Belarus since Amnesty International began keeping records. However, between March 2010 and July 2011, again three men were executed. At least three more executions took place in 2012. Three more people were executed in 2014.
Human rights activists, the United Nations, and the European Union have been urging the Belarusian government for years to abolish the death penalty or at least impose a moratorium on executions. So far, however, all attempts to do so have failed. In March 2016, President Lukashenko again stated that the Belarusian government had its own views on the death penalty and maintained his position that it should continue to be used as a punishment.
On April 18, 2016, Belarusian citizen Syarhey Ivanov was executed, according to the United Nations. Other death sentences were also handed down. In addition, executions were again publicly announced in late 2016. The United Nations, which continues to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus and vehemently criticizes execution practices along with other human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, confirmed the executions of three prisoners, Henadz Yakavitski, Ivan Kulesh, and Syarhey Khymyaleuski.
Amnesty International believes at least two more executions took place in 2017, and at least four executions were documented in 2018. In 2019, two men charged with murder, Aliaksandr Zhylnikau and Viachaslau Sukharko, were executed, and Alyaksandr Asipovich.
In 2020, the two brothers Illia and Stanislau Kostseu, aged 21 and 19, were sentenced to death by the Mahiliou Regional Court. At the end of April 2021, it was announced that the two brothers had been pardoned and their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. This is only the second pardon in Belarus since the first presidency of Alexander Lukashenko in 1994. According to information available to Amnesty International, Viktar Paulau was executed in May 2021.
In July 2022, Viktar Skrundzik was executed.
Thus, at least one person – Viktar Serhil – is currently facing execution in Belarus. In January 2020, the death sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court. Since then, there is no information whether the death sentence was carried out or not.
Crimes Punishable by Death in Belarus
Belarus reserves the death penalty for the following offenses: Waging a war of aggression, murder of a representative of a foreign state or international organization with the aim of causing international tension or war, international terrorism, crimes against humanity, premeditated murder under aggravating circumstances, terrorism, terrorist acts, treason in unity with murder, conspiracy to seize power, sabotage, murder of a police officer, use of weapons of mass destruction, and murder of a person in violation of international and customary law during war.
On May 18, 2022, Alexander Lukashenko gave his approval to the new law introducing the death penalty for “attempted acts of terrorism.” The law entered into force 10 days after its publication. The law had previously passed the Belarusian parliament on an expedited basis on April 29.
Most death sentences in Belarus were for premeditated murder under aggravating circumstances. In all cases, the death penalty is optional. Accordingly, the decision on death sentences is at the discretion of the court. The death penalty in Belarus may not be imposed on women and may not be imposed on men under 18 or over 65.
As long as the death penalty is upheld, the risk of executing an innocent person can never be ruled out. This risk is particularly high in Belarus, where the judicial system is seriously flawed. Trials in Belarus often take place in camera. Confessions are sometimes coerced under torture and ill-treatment.
Since 1999, it has been possible for the president to commute a death sentence to life imprisonment in the event of a plea for clemency. The exact procedure is secret. Since taking office in 1994, President Lukashenko is said to have agreed to only one request for clemency.
Execution method and procedure
The usual method of execution in Belarus is shooting. Execution dates are not announced in advance to prisoners on death row.
They are usually told only a few minutes before the execution and shortly after it is finally determined that their request for clemency has been rejected. Shortly before the execution, the prisoners are taken to a room where they are informed of the rejection of the clemency request in the presence of the prison director, the public prosecutor and another employee of the Ministry of the Interior. Here they are also informed that the death sentence will now be carried out. The prisoners are then taken to an adjacent room. There they are forced to kneel down and shot in the back of the head.
The official written notification of execution is issued by the court that imposed the death penalty. It can take weeks or months for the court to serve this notice.
The bodies of executed individuals are not released to families. Instead, burial takes place in a secret location that is not disclosed to relatives. Also, no personal belongings of the executed person are handed over to the family members.
Sources and further information:
Amnesty International, Belarus Human Rights House,“The new death sentence was passed in Belarus,” November 2015.” See also the article: “Belarus Retains Death Penalty, Promotes UN Reform – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest,” Belarus Digest, March 17, 2016; “Belarus: execution shows ‘callous disdain’ for international human rights law – UN experts,” United Nations News Centre, May 13, 2016. May 2016; “UN Condemns Executions in Belarus,” Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2016; “Death penalty in Belarus: Murder on (Un)Lawful Ground” FIDH report, October 2016; “Death sentences and executions 2017,” Amnesty International annual report, April 2018
Amnesty International: Wenn der Staat tötet – Die Todesstrafe in Belarus – Mai 2022.
As of March 2023