Belarus sentences 9 to death in 2006, up from 2, court chairman says

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus: Nine people were sentenced to death in Belarus last year, up from two in 2005, the chairman of the Supreme Court said Monday - an increase that is likely to add to European criticism of the ex-Soviet republic's authoritarian leadership.

There were more death sentences in 2006 because "several large criminal gangs and organizations were neutralized," Supreme Court chairman Valentin Sukalo said.

One such alleged gang, based in the city of Gomel, was accused of 16 murders and had 48 members, according to Belarusian authorities.

Belarus is the only European country that is not a member of the Council of Europe and practices the death penalty. Neighboring Russia has not abolished capital punishment, but suspended the death penalty a decade ago when it joined the continent's leading human rights body.

Sukalo did not say how many of the death sentences had been carried out, but President Alexander Lukashenko did not pardon any of those sentenced. Executions in Belarus are carried out with a gunshot to the back of the head; relatives are not officially told of the date of the execution or where the body is buried.

Lukashenko has been dubbed Europe's last dictator by Western governments because of his suppression of dissent in the nation of 10 million, where he has held on to power since 1994 through elections dismissed by the United States and European countries as illegitimate.