Belarus is the last country in Europe and from the former Soviet Union that still carries out executions, after Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan abolished capital punishment last year, Amnesty International writes in its yearly report on the death penalty.
At least four people were executed and another sentenced to death in 2008, the study estimates. The human rights group is only able to offer an estimate as all information on the death penalty in Belarus is kept secret.
The EU is opening up to Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, despite his poor human rights record (Photo: www.president.gov.by)
The report came out just days after the European Union decided to include Belarus in a new policy towards its eastern neighbours, the European Partnership. The policy aims to offer visa-free travel and a free-trade area, as well as promotion of human rights and good governance.
The international watchdog has launched an online campaign urging President Alexander Lukashenko to abolish capital punishment. So far, EU leaders have not decided whether to invite Mr Lukashenko to the Eastern Partnership summit in May.
According to Amnesty International, Belarussian prisoners on death row are told they will be executed only moments before the sentence is carried out. They are shot in the back of the head with a silenced Makarov pistol and the body is not handed over to the family, who are informed only after the event. The place of burial is also kept secret, causing further distress.
The total death toll estimated since Belarus gained its independence in 1991 amounts to 400 people in a country with a population of 9.6 million.
The Belarussian criminal justice system is "flawed" and administers administers capital punishment in a manner that violates international laws and standards pertaining to the death penalty, the report shows.
There is credible evidence that torture is used to extract "confessions" and condemned prisoners may not have access to effective appeal mechanisms.
Prisoners condemned to death in Belarus are reportedly held in basement cells in "SIZO No. 1" in Minsk, the country's top prison. Officials would not confirm to Amnesty International whether this was the case.
In addition to its use as a sanction under criminal law, the threat of execution has also been used to suppress political activity.
In March 2006, following the presidential elections, the head of the state security services (KGB) threatened potential demonstrators with the death penalty, saying: "The actions of people who come to the square [to demonstrate] will be assessed as terrorism, which is punished according to various articles with eight years' imprisonment to the death penalty."
Some positive steps have been made, for instance, a Constitutional Court decision in 2004 finding that death penalty was in conflict with the constitution and could be abolished.
"However, despite these positive moves and pressure from international organisations, the Belarussian authorities have not yet demonstrated any political will to initiate public debate on the topic or to make the necessary legislative changes," the report concludes.
Russian death penalty still on the books
The Russian Federation has maintained a moratorium on executions and death sentences for more than 10 years, but still has yet to actually abolish the death penalty in law, Amnesty International writes.
In Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, retained the death penalty when they gained independence in 1991. But by September 2008, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had abolished the death penalty in law. Tajikistan meanwhile has moratorium on executions and death sentences.
On 1 January 2008, Uzbekistan abolished the death penalty. However, by the end of December 2008, authorities had still not published statistics on the death penalty for previous years, including the number of sentences, executions and commutations. The total number of people on death row who had their sentences automatically commuted to life imprisonment upon abolition was also not published.
By the end of December 2008 there was no progress on allowing relatives access to information on burial sites of executed prisoners. Also, there was no information released regarding the re-investigation of old cases where the accused or his relatives had alleged the use of torture in order to force a confession.
China has tripled death sentences
More people were executed in Asia than in any other part of the world in 2008. China carried out more executions than the rest of the world put together, amounting to at least 1,718.
In China, those facing capital charges do not receive fair trials, have no prompt access to lawyers and do not benefit from the presumption of innocence.
Political interference in the judiciary and failure to exclude evidence extracted through torture, the report writes.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US and Pakistan are next on the list, but with far fewer executions. Together, these five countries carried out 93 percent of all executions carried out in 2008.
In the US, however, the trend is declining, with the smallest number of executions reported since 1995 - 37.