RIGHTS-SIBERIA:Young Ready to Change Mind On Death Penalty
By Kester Kenn Klomegah MOSCOW, Aug 25 () - Young people in Siberia, the vast Russian region once notorious for its Soviet penal colonies, have shown readiness to give up their support for the death penalty as soon as they are exposed to views of opponents to capital punishment. In an essay competition on the death penalty held in the region's main cities, half the participants argued that the state should have the right to execute its most serious criminals, Victoria Sergeyeva, the director of Penal Reform International (PRI) in Russia, told IPS. But when these supporters of capital punishment were invited to exchange opinions with essayists with contrary views, some changed their minds and supported abolition, Victoria Sergeyeva said. Four hundred young people between 18 and 25 took part in the competition for the best essays on capital punishment organised by PRI in six Siberian cities - Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Kemerovo, Novokuznezk and Barnaul. PRI chose the best three essays in each city. "Many participants said they initially supported the death penalty mostly because of information they received from the mass media," Victoria Sergeyeva said. Their change of mind at roundtable discussions after the competition winners were announced in April, showed the Russian press needed to publish a wider range of views on the death penalty issue, she said. "Many participants were convinced that the continued presence of the death penalty in national legislation was a deterrent. They had not considered the opposite view that crimes were committed by people who were not thinking of the sentence at the time and were convinced they would escape justice. "Many said the death penalty gave them a sense of security. They had not thought that street lighting everywhere and effective policing would give them this." Since 1996, Russia has respected an official moratorium on executions. But the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, has stalled on passing a law abolishing the death penalty. Some MPs have said they would not support an abolition bill because the general public was not ready for it, Victoria Sergeyeva said. "It is the authorities who are deliberately prolonging the road to abolition," Julia Mikhuno, a final-year student at the Altai Academy of Law and Economics and prizewinner in Barnaul, a city in southwest Siberia close to the border with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, told IPS. "I know there is not just one argument in support of abolition. I tried in my essay to give many reasons for my opposition to capital punishment. "Our country has reached a crucial moment in its history. We have to make a good choice now. We have to respect human rights and the dignity and value of human life." She added that abolishing the death penalty would not be a break with Russia's tradition. Prior to the 10th century, the death penalty was not imposed by Slavonic tribes. Alexander Ulyanov, a prizewinner studying at the TomskStateUniversity in southwest Siberia, recognised the suffering killers inflicted on the victims' family and children. "Nevertheless, we must not be ruled by our emotions and allow ourselves to administer this ultimate punishment." Fear and violence had never succeeded in keeping order for long, argued Andrey Manskiy and Demitry Zheltukhin, prizewinners studying at the Ministry of Interior Institute in the city of Kemerovo, southwestern Siberia. Capital punishment was now "obsolete", they told IPS. Anna Shadrina, a prizewinner in the city of Novokuznezk, southwestern Siberia, also argued that the execution was not a deterrent to serious crime. "For crimes to be kept to the barest minimum, it is important to guarantee employment and raise living standards in our society," she told IPS. "Criminality is frequently caused by social inequality." Approximately half the participants supported the death penalty before meeting with other essayist in their cities when some changed their minds. Thirty percent wrote essays against the death penalty. Twenty per cent were undecided. In a countrywide PRI-poll last year, 11 percent of Russian citizens said they were against capital punishment. PRI now intends to publish the essays in form of a book.