The Russian Constitutional Court decision to extend a decade-old moratorium on carrying out death sentences reflects a global trend among states to halt executions forthwith, pending commensurate reform of the criminal law. If the global trend has evolved in the face of mounting evidence undermining the presumed efficacy of capital punishment, the Russian judicial initiative is consistent with that country’s strong backing for a 2007 United Nations General Assembly Resolution that called upon states still having the death penalty on their statute books to suspend the execution of sentences. This should facilitate the country’s early ratification of Protocol 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, stipulating the abolition of capital punishment. The elimination of this most barbarous punishment is a requirement for membership of the Council of Europe. However, going by the precedent of Chechnya adopting a procedure of trial by jury under which death sentences may be awarded, there is a chance that other Russian provinces may follow suit. This has put the legal status of this issue in the spotlight. Notwithstanding the introduction of jury trials, the Constitutional Court has now extended the moratorium on executions until the ratification of Protocol 6. The ratification however is subject to the deletion of the death penalty from the country’s criminal code.
The Russian leadership’s attempts to dispense with the death sentence progressively have met with a strong public opinion that places a high premium on its perceived deterrent effect, especially in the context of rising challenges to rigorous law enforcement and the perception of an increase in terrorism-related crimes in recent years. While the popular appeal of such ruthless solutions may be understandable, removing the death penalty from the statute book should be the eventual aim. Abolitionists, more than anybody else, should remain alive to the need for ensuring maximum transparency and accountability in the entire debate over the death penalty. The last execution in the Russian Federation took place way back in 1996 and recent developments augur well for the future of democracy in Russia, notwithstanding the upheavals the people have encountered in the post-Soviet Union era. Russia has shown a greater sensitivity than many other democracies that retain the death penalty. It is time all civilised societies ensured that their criminal jurisprudence was in tune with liberal values and respect for human rights.