By Kester Kenn Klomegah
MOSCOW, Jun 13 (IPS) - Belarus -- the last country in Europe to apply the death penalty -- will eventually abolish capital punishment by presidential decree or parliamentary vote, rather than by calling on the people to decide the issue in a referendum.
This was confirmed in a carefully-worded statement by the country's prosecutor general, Grigory Vasilevich, issued to IPS on June 6.
"The Constitutional Court believes that under existing conditions only the president and the parliament are able to abolish the death penalty or declare a moratorium," Vasilevich said, adding that the punishment in Belarus was only a "temporary" measure.
Earlier, the deputy head of the presidential administration, Natalia Petkevich, had insisted that the death penalty could be abolished only by a referendum.
One referendum decision could only be cancelled by another referendum, Petkevich had said, referring to the 1996 referendum in which 80.4 percent of the people rejected the idea of abolishing capital punishment.
Ever since that widely-disputed referendum, Belarusian officials have used it to fend off calls for an end to executions.
Vasilevich also noted the result of the 1996 referendum. But the "temporary character" of the death penalty in Belarus was now written into the constitution. In 2006, the country's penal code had also been specifically amended to reflect this essential feature, he said.
Vasilevich gave no indication when Belarus, a nation of nearly 10 million people which was formerly part of the Soviet Union, would abolish capital punishment.
Since independence in 1991, there have been executions every year. In 1997, the courts were allowed for the first time to award life sentences for grave crimes. After this, the number of executions peaked at 47 in 1998 and then rapidly declined.
Last year, at least four death sentences were handed down and there was one execution, according to Amnesty International.
In February this year, three members of the so-called "Morozov" gang, convicted of a number of killings and robberies, were executed by firing squad.
The executions provoked a furious reaction from the Council of Europe, the 47-member institution where death penalty abolition is a membership requirement.
"The Belarusian authorities have once again chosen the course of barbarism and injustice," the president of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, Lluis Maria de Puig, fumed in a statement to the press.
"President (Alexander) Lukashenko could have commuted these sentences and thus shown a clear determination to bring Belarus closer to the Council of Europe," he added.
Clearly stunned by the language, the chairman of the lower house of the Belarus parliament, Vadim Popov, responded by asking why the Council of Europe did not turn its criticism on the U.S. which still operated a death penalty system.
But Popov also offered the organisation an olive branch. He conceded that it was time "to discuss this issue". This would create the environment for a decision.
"Let's join forces to change public opinion ... Let's see how the people react to this issue," he told a press conference in the capital Minsk in April.
But he added the death penalty would be "impossible to abolish in one go", appearing to suggest that the next step would be to declare a moratorium.
Later, the head of the Constitutional Court, Valentin Sukalo, was more explicit in an interview with the official newsagency Belta. "We never insisted on keeping this measure (capital punishment)," he said. The way was open for Belarus to declare "at least" a moratorium.
Vitali Silitski, director of the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, said a moratorium was possible in return for more favourable treatment from the EU.
But full abolition would only come with a change in the regime, he told IPS.
Pavel Marazau, head of the NGO Third Way, said that a moratorium would be "an easy step" for Belarus to take.
"This could be a personal decision of (president) Lukashenko which can be taken without any public discussion," he told IPS.
Valery Filippov, executive director of the Republican Public Association for Legislative Initiatives, expressed caution about reading too much into official statements on the death penalty.
In the past, officials had given out deliberative contradictory statements because of the pressure from the EU, he told IPS.
He added that the issue was particularly complicated.
Public opinion on the death penalty issue would be difficult to alter because of the near-total official control of the media. Many citizens supported the right to seek revenge for crimes.
Vitak Rymashueski, co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democratic Party, one of more than a dozen opposition parties, also expressed the view that it was impossible to gauge public opinion on the death penal issue when there was no freedom of speech.
Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organisation, said it is currently campaigning for Belarus -- a "notoriously unique" country in Europe -- to abolish the death penalty.
It was propaganda and prejudice that convinced people that the death penalty was the solution to grave crime, said Slava Kudryavtsev, Amnesty's specialist on Russia and the former Soviet republics.
"It would be much better if the death penalty is abolished not because of pressure or sanction from outside the country, but because the people and the government understand the benefits of this step," he told IPS.