by Thomas Hubert
Amnesty charts death penalty world map and vows to remove Belarus from it
World Coalition member organisation Amnesty International (AI) has released its annual statistics on the death penalty and launched a campaign against capital punishment in Belarus.
According to AI's figures, at least at least 2,390 people were known to have been executed in 25 countries around the world in 2008. However, actual figures are believed to be much higher because of the secrecy surrounding the death penalty in countries such as China, Belarus, Mongolia and North Korea.
AI estimates that at least 8,864 people were sentenced to death in 52 countries last year.
Geographically, the pattern observed in the past remains the same: the vast majority of executions are carried out in Asia - chiefly in China -, followed by the Middle East.
As in previous years, the five countries with the heaviest use of the death penalty in 2008 were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US. They accounted for 93% of worldwide known executions.
The last country in Europe to carry out executions
As its released its annual statistics, the organisation chose to focus attention on Belarus - "the last country in Europe and in the former Soviet Union that is still carrying out executions", according to a report compiled by AI with assistance from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and other local human rights activists. The study was launched at a press conference in Minsk on March 24.
Four executions were reported in Belarus in 2008. Yet AI believes that the country is ready to abolish capital punishment, as its authorities have repeatedly promised to do in the past years.
The Constitutional Court recommended abolition or a moratorium in 2004, legislative reforms have reduced the scope of the death penalty and the number of executions has been decreasing steadily. This points to "an irreversible [process of] movement towards gradual rejection of the death penalty", according to the Belarusian deputy minister of the interior, quoted in the report.
Both the Council of Europe and the European Union have made the abolition of capital punishment a condition of closer ties with Minsk - a pressure that could prove crucial in times of economic crisis.
Bodies disposed of secretly
To encourage Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to make the final step and end the use of such a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, AI calls on members of the public to send him a postcard urging him to establish a moratorium on all death sentences and executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty and to commute existing death sentences.
The postcard is illustrated with a picture of a prisoner about to be shot in the back of the head, the method of execution used in Belarus.
According to Colonel Oleg Alkaev, who managed a death row prison in Minsk and ordered a number of executions, the bodies of the executed are then disposed of secretly and their families do not know where they are buried.
Watch Colonel Alkaev's testimony below, as recorded by AI.