#21 - JRL 2009-208 - JRL Home
RIA Novosti
November 13, 2009
Pros and cons of capital punishment

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Nikolai Troitsky) - The Constitutional Court, Russia's highest legal body, should have its say on capital punishment. But while the Court has paused to negotiate, this issue remains a subject of heated public debates.

The main arguments against capital punishment are well known. Sociologists and historians have definitively established that the death penalty has no effect on the crime rate. Even an ideal legal system (which does not exist in Russia) is not immune to wrong verdicts; and because death is final, there is no way to correct a mistake.

No mechanization of the process will prevent a person appointed by the government from flipping a switch on an electric chair or carrying out a lethal injection. Hence, the government employs executioners, which seems out of place in the 21st century.

There is also a moral aspect. There is also a moral aspect. If a group of people kills one of its kin - even legally - how does this differ from murder? Even the savage Cossack Taras Bulba tried to justify himself by saying he had the right to kill his own offspring. But when life-or-death issues are decided by a heartless government agency, even this justification does not apply.

Classic Marxists use the term "machinery of violence" to describe the state. And the state is no longer influenced by religious morality because it has been separated from the church. However, ethical categories have not been abolished. Only in the Third Reich did government officials try to rid themselves and their subordinates of the burden of conscience.

Death penalty advocates' main arguments are also clear and understandable. Even life in prison is not sufficient, because in theory a criminal can flee from any prison. In the event of a change of power, the most surprising amnesties may be announced.

Moreover, the destruction of a cruel monster, such as a serial killer, a pedophile, or a cannibal, is an act of justice. The state must get rid of these people in the interests of the majority.

In reality, execution is an act of revenge rather than justice. Widespread support for the execution of a cruel killer is rooted in an atavistic manifestation of the lex talionis (the law of retaliation), best expressed by the Bible's formula of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."

However, even in the Code of the Babylonian King Hammurabi (1700 BC), lex talionis was used on a limited scale and with reservations. Even in ancient times the rulers and lawmakers did not consider it fully justified.

Much time has passed since then, but the same ancient principles have survived up to the present day in the form of Corsican vendetta or blood feud. It is sufficient to recall the tragic story of Vitaly Kaloyev, who stabbed in Switzerland an air traffic controller whom he held responsible for the death of his wife and children.

It is possible to understand and forgive Kaloyev. Who guarantees that they would not have done the same? I cannot, but this does not mean that we should give official approval to this kind of conduct. However, this is exactly what happens when prosecutors and judges administer revenge.

Incidentally, the existence of the death penalty as such does not reflect society's level of civilization and culture. During the last 300 years, there were long periods in Russian history when it was not applied.

Empress Elizabeth imposed a full moratorium on executions, and Catherine the Great violated it only once because of Yemelyan Pugachev's insurgency. After five Decembrists were hanged, Nicholas I refrained from executions. Under Alexander II (the Liberator), the gallows again started being used on a large scale.

Capital punishment was introduced by the Provisional Government and cancelled by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in 1917, though for a very short span of time.

After the Great Patriotic War, even Stalin showed a scintilla of humanity, and nobody was executed in the U.S.S.R. starting from 1947. Nevertheless, Nikita Khrushchev reimposed it retroactively (which was against basic laws), and a group of currency dealers was shot.

Does this mean that Nicholas I was more progressive and humane than his son Alexander? Or that the Soviet government proved to be more humane than the capitalists? Did Khrushchev outdo Stalin in being cruel? These are academic questions.

In 1996, President Boris Yeltsin tried to put an end to the mess and imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and executions. This was a temporary measure, but in Russia many temporary things have become permanent. However, this may not be the case. Before the end of this year, the Constitutional Court should decide on the death penalty once and for all.

Most likely, it will be abolished. This is not purely a political or legal issue, but also a matter of honor. It is simply inappropriate to go back.

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