The Soviet Union each year executes about 300 criminals, most of them convicted murderers, a senior government official disclosed Monday.
Gennady G. Cheremnykh, the chief of the clemency appeals department at the Supreme Soviet, the country’s legislature, said that a committee of seven deputies hears 25 to 30 appeals a month but grants clemency only in 3% to 5% of the cases.
Acknowledging a growing movement within the Soviet Union to abolish the death penalty, Cheremnykh asserted that it is still supported by 80% of the population for the most serious capital crimes, particularly murder.
“If we ever repeal the death penalty,” Cheremnykh said in an interview with the government newspaper Izvestia, “there will at last be established in the public consciousness the unshakable foundation of Christian values.”
The exact number of people executed remains a state secret, Cheremnykh told Izvestia, but the approximate number, apparently 300 or a few more each year, can be calculated accurately from the numbers he provided.
His disclosure was the first official indication in nearly 60 years of the extent to which the death penalty is carried out here.
Most Western estimates had put the number of executions at 700 or more a year, although Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, said earlier this year that, because of Soviet secrecy, it had been able to document just 108 executions in the past decade out of 329 cases in which those convicted had been sentenced to death.
A new criminal code, presented in draft form to the Supreme Soviet nearly two years ago, reduces from 18 to six the crimes for which the death penalty may be imposed and exempts from execution all women, men over 60 and youths under 18. Those executed are shot.
With the country beset by a crime wave--murders are up 21% so far this year, rapes 14%, aggravated assaults 16%, serious crimes overall by 15%--the Supreme Soviet has not yet approved the law, and the government has not ordered a stay of executions pending its adoption.
Sentiment has been building over the last two years, however, for the abolition of the death penalty. A wide debate has been under way within the Soviet press, where it has fused to some extent with other radicals-versus-conservatives issues.
To put the current figures in perspective, a Soviet criminal lawyer said Monday that, out of 21,500 reported murders in the Soviet Union last year, there were murder convictions in just under half the cases. Of the 10,000 convicted, fewer than 10% were sentenced to death, and the convictions or sentences were set aside in half the cases.
“A murderer calculating the odds of his own execution would conclude that the percentages, about 98.5% in fact, are with him,” the lawyer said, asking not to be quoted by name for professional reasons. “To judge from our rising crime rate, including murders, the death penalty is not a deterrent. Yet, it is something that society seems still to demand for a few cases too outrageous to ignore.”
(In the United States last year, there were 16 executions.)
No figures on the number of executions have been published since 1934, when dictator Josef Stalin declared them a state secret in an effort to hide the full scope of his purges.
Under current Soviet law, each case in which the death sentence has been imposed is appealed through a hierarchy of local, regional and national courts, which review the trial and the application of the law. More than half the death sentences imposed are set aside during this process, according to Soviet lawyers.
Finally, if the verdict and sentence have both been upheld, the case is sent to the Supreme Soviet, where the committee discusses it solely on grounds of compassion.
Cheremnykh, a former judge, said the committee generally reaches a consensus without voting and makes a recommendation to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who has so far endorsed its decisions without change.
“The committee does not question the validity of the sentence of the circumstances of the case, but whether to exercise the right of clemency and commute the death sentence,” Cheremnykh said. “We are guided exclusively by the principle of compassion.”
The committee is made up of a variety of deputies, including a cosmonaut, a Moldovian writer, a KGB general, the vice chairman of the national veterans organization and two factory foremen. There is a vacancy at present.
V. I. Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary who founded the Soviet state, abolished the death penalty almost immediately but then reinstated it as part of “the revolution’s punishing sword” during the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the Whites, a loose alliance of anti-Bolshevik elements aided by several foreign countries. Lenin abolished it again in 1920 but brought it back the same year during a war with Poland. Josef Stalin, who succeeded Lenin and ruled the Soviet Union for three decades, abolished the death penalty in 1947 after ordering the execution of thousands of people personally during the 1930s and 1940s. Nikita S. Khrushchev reinstated it--and made it retroactive for a number of “economic crimes.”