Two new executions have reportedly taken place in Belarus, according to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Aliaksei Mikhalenia and Viktor Liotau were killed in secret in May. Information about the impending executions were withheld from family members, as well as the public. “Once again we must stand firm against any death sentence imposed by the Belarusian courts and any executions carried out in that country. The death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment, which is no longer acceptable in Europe,” the Council of Europe said.
Belarus is the only post-communist European country where the death penalty remains legal. Although the exact number is unknown, more than 400 people have been executed since Belarus gained its independence in 1991, according to Belarussian human rights center Viasna. Authorities carry out executions in secret and refuse to release the bodies of executed prisoners to their families. Typically, prisoners are executed within hours of learning their clemency applications have been denied, as was the case with Mikhalenia and Liotau, who had respectively been accused of murdering two people and killing a cellmate.
Some steps have been taken to reduce reliance on the death penalty in Belarus, which is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship. In December 1997, life imprisonment was introduced as an alternative to the death penalty; capital punishment has also been restricted to men between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five.
Abolishing the death penalty is a condition for Belarus to join the Council of Europe. The Council has worked with Belarussian government agencies over the past years on prohibiting the death penalty, and, in particular, on ways of engaging with the public on this sensitive issue.
In a November 1996 referendum 80.44% of Belarusians voted against abolishing the death penalty. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has since used this referendum result to justify maintaining the death penalty. But “[w]hile President Lukashenko claims the death penalty is the will of the Belarusian people, they surely didn’t vote for it to be carried out arbitrarily and in secret,” as noted in an article for Open Democracy.
Belarus is the only country in Europe that is not a member of the Council of Europe. Between 1992 and 1997, the Belarus national legislature enjoyed Special Guest status in PACE. Despite the prospect of membership, Belarus’s human rights record did not improve. Consequently, the country’s Special Guest status was suspended in January 1997 after the November 1996 referendum, which foreign elections observers condemned as undemocratic.
It is unlikely that PACE will consider the recent secret executions as an improvement in Belarus’ human rights record and reinstate Special Guest status for Belarus any time soon.