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20th Apr 2019

Europe's first ever execution-free year undone by Belarus

For the first time ever, no one was executed anywhere on the continent of Europe last year, according to Amnesty International's annual executions report, a human rights record that was undone just a few days ago when Belarus executed two individuals some time around 18 March.

While the European Union outlaws capital punishment from Lapland to Lisbon and campaigns for its universal abolition, and a total of 48 out of 50 European states have abolished the practice, Belarus is the last European country to retain the death penalty.

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Latvia, as an EU member, has also abolished capital punishment but retains the theoretical possibility of imposing the ultimate sanction in times of war. Portugal was the first European country to abolish capital punishment, in 1867.

In a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, early Tuesday (30 March) the human rights watchdog called on her to condemn the Belarussian executions, in which two men were shot, and to step up the campaign for an international moratorium on the death penalty.

"The death penalty has not been mentioned on a regular basis in high-level [EU] political statements and the deafening silence after the executions in Belarus has made the issue of the death penalty look even less like a priority," said Nicolas Beger, the director of Amnesty International's EU office.

The group said that hoped Ms Ashton would make abolition of the death penalty one of "top priorities" of the External Action Service, the EU's new diplomatic corps.

By the afternoon, the high representative's office had put out a policy statement on Belarus, expressing "grave concern" at the harassment of journalists, NGOs and opposition groups. The statement also said the EU "deplores" the execution of the two men.

However, Amnesty's David Nicholls, the group's officer dealing with EU foreign policy, told EUobserver that the wording was "buried amid a very broad statement in the third paragraph, on the second page."

"We are very worried about the way the EU at the moment is dealing with cases like this, when Brussels used to be much stronger. The statement didn't even mention the two men by name."

"It's clear there is an institutional confusion at the moment and in many cases leading to inaction at both the EU level and in [foreign] delegations," he continued.

"Of course there will be a transition period between the old, rotating EU presidency and the new high representative position and External Action Service, just so long as this transition period doesn't last two years, as some people have been talking about."

Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for Ms Ashton, said: "This is the first I've heard of such worries. The system is still in place. There are of course some changes, but we aim for them to be as smooth as possible, and in this case, the delegation on the ground was particularly active."

The two men who were executed were the last two individuals on death row in the country and were sentenced last year for a pair of murders, committed separately.

Their families were not informed of the executions, and only found that their relatives had been killed when one mother went to deliver a food parcel and was informed of the executions.

Their names were Andrei Zhuk and Vasily Yuzepchuk.

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