Russia’s last death sentence was executed 10 years ago

Last week several news agencies were quick to report that Nurpashi Kulayev, the only terrorist tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for participation in the bloody Beslan school siege in September 2004, would serve his life sentence in IK-5, a maximum security correctional facility located on Ognenny, an island on Lake Novozero, some 260 kilometers away from the city of Vologda, northeastern part of Russia. The facility was the first maximum security penitentiary opened in March 1994 for convicts who were to have been punished by death but received a life sentence in the end.

However, two days later a spokesman for the Supreme Council of North Ossetia denied the reports by saying that the authorities have yet to decide where to the convict will be sent for completing his sentence. Representatives of the Federal Service of Corrections have not made any statements on the issue either. Not unlike in the case of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev following their conviction, the journalists cannot but indulge in guesswork and put forward their own versions regarding the possible whereabouts of Kulayev’s last refuge.

What are those prisons where a terrorist can be sent for serving his sentence? There are five maximum security prisons for “lifers” in Russia at the moment. They are located in Orenburg region, Sverdlovskaya region, Vologda region, Perm region, and Yamalo Nenets Autonomous Region. I was one the first journalists allowed a tour to the facility situated in Vologda region. It was a time when Colonel Alexei Rozov was still “devising” a new routine for convicts sentenced to life. I visited the penitentiary on Ognenny once again later. Colonel Lieutenant Miroslav Makukh, the boss of IK-5, was showing me around that time.

There are about 150 convicts in the prison. Nearly 80 percent of them are hardened repeat offenders. By and large, a “lifer” has killed three persons. On an average, the murderers who were condemned to death yet sent to prison for life are in their early thirties. At the beginning the first convicts who got a life sentence in lieu of death sentence would request the authorities to execute them. However, the convicts changed their mind after serving one or two years in prison. Eventually, they resigned themselves to the fate of a “lifer.” Moreover, many of them found some new sparks of interest to brighten up their seemingly bleak existence.

Even the inveterate murderers like Sharaevski, a former prosecutor, who killed two women in cold blood, can develop hobbies. The above character began drawing cartoons. Some of them scribble poetry, other go in for sports, keeping themselves in good shape. Some even hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Vladimir Podbutsky, a repeat offender jailed for numerous crimes including murder, experienced quite a revival. He even got married. To some extent, it looked like a regular wedding: the arrival of a bride, a wedding party. Needless to say, no booze was served.

Some people keep saying that Russia’s system of corrections is inhuman. In the meantime, Podbudsky, a criminal sentenced to life, exercises his right to receive regular food parcels and visits of his legal spouse.

One Vladimir Ganin, a turner from St.Petersburg convicted for zapping his girlfriend and two buddies during a drunken quarrel, astonished me most. Ganin was dubbed “our Picasso” by his fellow inmates. He makes very good copies of post cards and magazine illustrations by painting in oil paints.

The prison management found his paintings much to their liking. They provide him with paints and brushes. They even allocated a spare cell for his studio. Ganin’s paintings grace the walls of a meeting room and offices. I paid him 150 rubles (about $6) for a gloomy landscape, which took him several hours to paint.

The majority of the homeless would definitely envy the inmates for their food served at the expense of the state. As a rule, the convicts get wheat kasha (porridge) and sweetened tea for breakfast, pea soup with meat and barley kasha for lunch, and millet kasha for dinner. It is no bad at all for those who were supposed to get shot.

Russia has not yet formally canceled capital punishment though not a single criminal has been convicted to punishment by death in this country for the last ten years. No death verdicts were handed down even for most outrageous, ghastly crimes.

The point is that Russia was integrated into the Council of Europe on February 28, 1996. Russia had to commit itself to repealing capital punishment to meet one of the principal membership requirements. The State Duma deputies did not dare repeal capital punishment at a time when crime rate in Russia was growing by leaps and bounds. True to his trademark peremptory style, President Yeltsin simply signed a decree imposing a moratorium on capital punishment. All convicts punishable by death would get the maximum sentence - a term of life imprisonment or 25 years in jail. However, more than 40 convicts were put to death after Russia joined the Council of Europe. The executions stopped only in August of 1996. All those years Russia has strictly adhered to the moratorium.

According to data released by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, capital punishment was canceled in 72 countries by the year 1996. Four years later 105 counties either repealed capital punishment completely or imposed a moratorium on it. The United Nations reports show that the number of counties that banned capital punishment totaled 139 by the end of 2005. Meanwhile, capital punishment still exists in 57 countries including the United States (capital crimes are punished by death in 38 states of the union), Japan, and the People’s Republic of China, the keeper of socialist traditions.

The issue of capital punishment has given rise to a great deal of controversy and debate in Russia for the last ten years, since the day the moratorium came into force. The debate heats up every time a terrorist attack results in great loss of life. The tragedy in Beslan is the latest example. In light of the above, the last year alone saw three sessions of the State Duma discussing the possibility of lifting the moratorium on death capital. Some deputies proposed the use of execution as an ultimate means of visiting punishment on those who commit most hideous crimes involving an attempt on life.

These days nobody can predict for how long the moratorium on death sentence will remain effective in Russia.

According to a statement by Yuri Kalinin, director of the Federal Service of Corrections, the number of criminals sentenced to life imprisonment during the last ten years in Russia has totaled 1,619 as of August 2006. And we, the law-abiding taxpayers of this country, have to foot the bill for that bunch of monsters kept under lock and key.

Today nearly 850 thousand people are incarcerated in Russian prisons, correctional facilities, and holding cells. The number includes 133 thousand murderers who killed more than 200 thousand people, 21 thousand rapists, and 82 thousand robbers. About 71 thousand inmates have mental abnormalities and impaired faculties, while 29 thousand are prone to suicidal tendencies.


Translated by Guerman Grachev

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov