The conference brings together representatives of the Belarusian government, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), the United Nations and other international organizations, the Belarusian Orthodox Church, international and Belarusian NGOs and the media.
Andrei Paluda and Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” were invited to the event despite strong opposition from the authorities, which prevented the human rights defenders from attending a similar forum in March 2016.
Andrei Paluda, coordinator of the campaign Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus, said debates on the issue involved many references to historical and philosophical aspects, while he stressed it was the actual situation in the country that mattered most.
“You know, many people said that Belarus had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty between the executions of Aliaksandr Hrunou and Siarhei Ivanou. But it is essential that Siarhei Ivanou was shot just a a few weeks after the conference, which was organized in March. And this conference takes place against the backdrop of the enforcement of four death sentences this year, three of which took place a month ago,” Paluda said.
The human rights activist stressed the fact that many government representatives advocated cooperation with the Council of Europe, but the practice shows the opposite:
“To date, there is no cooperation with international treaty bodies, which is confirmed by six decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee. None of them was taken into account, as well as the Committee’s request for interim measures in respect of Henadz Yakavitski and Siarhey Khmialeuski. As a result, both have been executed.”
Chairman of the first session, head of the Department of European Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Andrei Bushyla said in response that they were not yet approaching “a direct moratorium, but the humanization of legislation is gradually happening.”
He said that according to a survey conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies in April of this year, 51% of respondents were in favor and 49% were against the death penalty.
Alexandre Guessel, Director of Political Affairs at the Council of Europe, stressed that talking of a de facto moratorium looked like saying that there could be a hunger strike between breakfast and lunch.
Valiantsin Stefanovich also noted that the human rights defenders sent copies of a recent report on the death penalty to all members of the House of Representatives. He said it was important to continue holding parliamentary hearings involving a wide range of public and human rights organizations.
“I wish that was a particular message from the government in this regard, so that it could be clear if we have on the agenda a moratorium as such, or we’ll keep talking a lot and continue applying the death penalty. The Belarusian authorities have not demonstrated that the question of the death penalty will be solved,” Stefanovich said.
The Council of Europe has made the abolition of death penalty one of its priorities, and has been fighting it for decades. As a result, no execution has taken plan in the Council of Europe’s member States since 1997.
Belarus, which is not a member of the Council of Europe, is the only country in Europe that still applies death penalty. The first ever Council of Europe’s Action plan for Belarus 2016-2017 stresses that “the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus remains the top priority for the CoE, as capital punishment is a major obstacle for Belarus to taking steps towards becoming a CoE member state.”