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Интервью руководителя Московского отделения Движения «Народный Собор» Александра Лапина журналу «Russia Profile»

The Public Is Asking for the Death Penalty to Be Introduced After the Moscow Metro Bombings, but Will This Measure Be Effective in Preventing Terrorist Attacks?

A few days before two deadly suicide bombings took place on the Moscow metro, killing 40 and injuring dozens more, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov announced that due to the threat of terrorism, Russia doesn’t plan to ratify the sixth protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans the death penalty. “Well-known circumstances do not allow us to do this. The issue has to do with terrorist activity in Russia,” he said. Following the tragedies at the Lubyanka and Park Kultury metro stations, the idea of introducing capital punishment for terrorists became the subject of a heated debate.

The Communist Party Leader Gennady Zyuganov proposed that the death penalty be reinstated as part of the Russian penitentiary system. “We said a long time ago that the country is not ready to abolish the death penalty. The death penalty for the most heinous crimes should be reintroduced,” he told journalists. Zyuganov believes that punishment should be most severe for those who organize, finance and assist others in carrying out terrorist attacks.

But despite this proposal, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev is approaching the issue from a different angle. “The death penalty is a separate issue, and we have obligations in this regard. I can say quite frankly that if I had been in this job in the 1990s, different decisions would have been taken. However, there is no point in going back over all of that now,” he said at a meeting with the heads of parliamentary factions on April 2.

When Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996, membership required that the country ban the death penalty. The last time capital punishment was carried out in Russia was in August of 1996. In April of 1997 Russia signed the sixth protocol, but didn’t ratify it. In February of 1999, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation introduced a moratorium on the death penalty until 2010, by which time jury courts were supposed to be established across the entire country.

Although the Constitutional Court ruled against reintroducing capital punishment at the end of last year, the heated debate surrounding the death penalty continues. Legally, Russia’s Criminal Code still contains five articles that prescribe the death penalty, such as genocide, murder, assassination attempts on state or public figures, assassination attempts on a person administering justice or carrying out a preliminary investigation and assassination attempts on law enforcement officers.

However, some human rights organizations believe that capital punishment will not be reintroduced in Russia despite the tragedy on the Moscow metro. Valery Sergeev, a representative of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, pointed out that his organization has always been against the death penalty for ethical reasons. “In my personal opinion, it is hard to believe that Zyuganov’s call might really influence the situation. The death penalty in this country is part of big-time politics, which is in other people’s jurisdiction,” he said.

At the same time, the ultra-patriotic NGO Narodny Sobor last week held an authorized rally in the center of Moscow in support of reinstating the death penalty in Russia. “We continue our public campaign to revoke the moratorium on the death penalty for the most dangerous kinds of criminals, such as terrorists, drug dealers, pedophiles and serial killers,” said Alexander Lapin, the leader of the Moscow regional branch of Narodny Sobor. “Many people signed our petition to cancel the moratorium when we held a rally. They came out, expressed solidarity and said that they want to join our movement. Undoubtedly, this is linked to the recent butchery on the Moscow metro committed by suicide bombers.”

Members of Narodny Sobor believe that the death penalty is not revenge, but a rightful punishment for heinous crimes and a form of social protection for potential victims of crime. “Do organizers of bloody terrorist attacks or pedophile murderers, who can never be cured, deserve to live?” they ask. “We can’t leave people one on one with criminals,” Lapin said.

The main argument in favor of the death penalty is public opinion, Narodny Sobor surveys found. A recent poll conducted by the sociologic department of this organization in Moscow found that 76 percent of respondents support capital punishment for serious criminals. “Considering the fact that Moscow residents are generally more liberal than residents of the Russian regions, it is possible to suppose that more people would support the idea of the death penalty across the country,” Lapin said.

And this may indeed be true. When the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) conducted a poll about capital punishment six months ago, 79 percent of respondents said that pedophiles should be executed, and 65 percent supported the death penalty for terrorists. Sixty-one percent said that drug dealers don’t deserve to live and 60 percent want the death penalty to be reintroduced for murderers.

Most of those who back capital punishment are elderly people who support the communists and right-wing patriotic movements. Younger people with more liberal attitudes tend to vote for extending the moratorium, or for fully abolishing the death penalty. But despite the fact that many Russians support the death penalty, they believe that miscarriages of justice are possible, and innocent people might be executed by mistake. Fifty-five percent of respondents pointed this out in the poll.

Moreover, half of those polled opined that life sentences in Russian prisons might be crueler than capital punishment. Thousands of Russian prisoners die every year from hunger and tuberculosis, or suffocate in overcrowded cells in pre-trial detention centers, a statement by the Moscow Center for Prison Reform said. “The original idea of imprisonment was penitence, but the existing correctional facility system in Russia, which humiliates prisoners, may disturb this process,” Sergeev said.

So why do so many people want to bring back the death penalty in Russia? “There were many terrorist attacks in the first decade of the new millennium. It makes people feel vulnerable and helpless,” said Svetlana Degtyareva, a psychologist at the Pro Bono Alliance. “The threat of violence and terror that hangs in the air provokes anxiety. It causes a defensive type of aggression that is not directed at anything specific,” Andrew Degtyarev, her colleague, added. “Fear and the feeling of helplessness are so insufferable and humiliating that it is necessary to redirect this hatred toward somebody else, to get illusory control over tragic events.”

However, psychologists are quite skeptical of the idea that the death penalty might scare off potential terrorists who are ready to commit suicide. “The attempt to frighten potential suicide bombers with capital punishment looks like an illusory pursuit caused by fear and hate,” Degtyareva said. “But fear and hate are bad companions in a battle against a strong enemy.”