Defender a Blow for Rule of Law
And this uniquely cruel form of punishment is also – as in this case – plagued
with arbitrariness, prejudice and error. Did the 2 young men actually commit
the bombings in April 2011 for which they were executed, in which 15 people
were killed and over 200 injured?
Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch Recent
executions in Belarus exemplify repression on a scale unprecedented in the
post-Soviet era, and the EU should apply more pressure on the Lukashenka regime
– says Human Rights Watch.
The international condemnations of the two executions announced last Saturday
in Belarus came fast and furious, but of course they were too late to make a
difference. Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said
Belarus was increasingly isolated from the rest of the world due to its
"disrespect of basic human rights". Markus Loening, Germany's human rights
commissioner, was cutting in his criticism, describing Alyaksandr Lukashenka,
Belarus' authoritarian president, as "a dictator without heart or mercy".
Lukashenka had last week refused to pardon the two men, Dzmitry Kanavalau and
Uladzislau Kavalyou, both aged 26, who were convicted last year for a number of
offences, including a deadly attack on the Minsk metro. An estimated 400 people
have been executed in Belarus since 1991, and the country of 9.5 million people
on the European Union's borders remains the only European country to use the
death penalty. As if the executions were not awful enough for the relatives,
Lyubov Kavalyova, Kavalyou's mother, was only informed of her son's death after
the event, in a letter from the Supreme Court.
Capital punishment is wrong in principle and should be abolished. Belarus
should at the very least introduce an immediate moratorium on executions. And
this uniquely cruel form of punishment is also – as in this case – plagued with
arbitrariness, prejudice and error. Did the 2 young men actually commit the
bombings in April 2011 for which they were executed, in which 15 people were
killed and over 200 injured?
Independent experts and human rights groups repeatedly expressed their concerns
about due process and other fair trial violations, including torture and other
forms of ill-treatment, during the investigation and trial. Kanavalau and
Kavalyou were executed despite the fact that Kavalyou's mother had submitted a
petition on her son's behalf to the United Nations human rights committee,
which, following standard practice, asked the Belarus government not to carry
out the sentence until the committee had reviewed and issued a decision in the
case. As in previous execution cases in Belarus, the 2 men initially confessed
to the crime, but later retracted their confessions, with family members
claiming both men were beaten or tortured during police interrogation.
Sadly, the executions fit a wider pattern of human rights abuses in Belarus,
triggered most recently by the crackdown on protests in December 2010 after
flawed elections gave Lukashenka another term. Over 700 protesters, including
dozens of journalists and seven presidential candidates, were arrested at the
time, and many served 15-day prison terms for "hooliganism". Since then the
levels of repression have been unprecedented in the post-Soviet era, with heavy
restrictions on the media and freedom of assembly. Human rights defenders,
lawyers, journalists and political activists have been the target of harassment
campaigns, and several prominent opposition figures remain in prison.
So what can be done? The EU was correct last month when it widened its
sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, listing 21 judges and top police
officers who face travel bans and asset freezes in the EU. The executions
should strengthen its resolve further. Minsk's reaction, telling the Polish
ambassador and the head of the EU delegation to leave Belarus, should not deter
the EU from putting the sanctions into effect.
The EU should also use its influence to maintain pressure on Belarus in the
UN's human rights council in Geneva. Last June the council, in a move reserved
for severe cases of human rights abuses, condemned the recent violations and
instructed Navi Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, to monitor the
situation in Belarus and report back. Her report is due in June. The
international community should use this opportunity to send a clear message
that human rights abuses must stop immediately.
Perhaps most important, ordinary citizens in Belarus must know they are not
forgotten. People continue to stand up to the regime, knowing they could face
severe consequences, and these actions deserve respect and backing. At the
weekend, after the two deaths were announced, groups of people angered by the
executions laid flowers and lit candles outside the metro station where the
bombing occurred last year.
Tatyana Snezhinskaya, a teacher who attended, told the international media:
"The government shot these boys so quickly [after the trials] that I have even
more doubts about their guilt. The death penalty should be abolished. We should
not take the lives of people, especially of those who might be victims of
judicial errors or political orders". Such brave gestures deserve international
(source: Hugh Williamson is director of the Europe and Central Asia division of
Human Rights Watch)