Russia's new liberalism fails death row man

HELEN WOMACK

Moscow

Russia's accession to the Council of Europe last month came too late for Nikolai Pozhedayev, the death-row prisoner featured in the Independent at the start of this year. After waiting five years for an answer to his appeal, he was executed in the middle of January, weeks before Russia was admitted to the European club.

Among various requirements for democracy, it expects members to abolish the death penalty. But Pozhedayev may not be the last person to be executed in Russia: this week President Boris Yeltsin urged parliament to ratify the Council's four conventions on different aspects of human rights but said Russia could not implement all its recommendations immediately. In particular, he said, Russia was "absolutely unprepared" to give life sentences to murderers, as in the rest of Europe.

Part of the problem is that Russia lacks the accommodation to keep dangerous criminals locked up for life. It has a few prisons, mostly built before the Bolshevik Revolution, but generally uses the Communist-era network of labour camps, which gives prisoners fresh air and occasionally the chance to escape. If a court decides a convict deserves worse than the maximum labour camp term of 20 years, the only alternative is death by shooting.

The head of the Russian penal service, Yuri Kalinin, was quoted in Trud newspaper as saying the country has 710 people on death row, all of whom might hope to have their sentences commuted, but there was only one jail able to take them. Russia needed five or six more high-security prisons.

The other problem is public opinion. Violent crime has overwhelmed the country since the collapse of Communism and most Russians want the authorities to be tough. With an election looming, Mr Yeltsin cannot afford to seem softer than opponents such as the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who calls for the summary execution of gangsters.

Anatoly Pristavkin, a writer who heads an independent commission which advises Mr Yeltsin on individual appeal cases, said he had spared fewer death-row inmates since last year's murder of the popular television broadcaster Vladislav Listyev, which shocked the nation. Before that, Mr Yeltsin had shown mercy more often than he had endorsed death sentences, in contrast to Soviet leaders, who executed an average of 700 convicts a year.

For example, in 1993 he spared 149 and had four executed. But in 1995 he gave the go-ahead for 86 death sentences to be carried out and commuted five. It was in this atmosphere that a decision was taken in Pozhedayev's case.

As the Independent reported in January, he was no saint. He was nicknamed Ogonyok (Flame) because, with other thugs, he set fire to a lorry after robbing and murdering the occupants. But he paid for his crime with an agony of uncertainty which even the guards at his prison in Yelets, central Russia, had come to feel amounted to torture.

He was sentenced to death in December 1989. When Mikhail Gorbachev refused his appeal for mercy he knew he could expect a bullet in the back of the head and prepared himself to die as best he could. But in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and he was encouraged to appeal again, to Mr Yeltsin. But he received no reply: his file was apparently lost.

For five years he was in limbo, fearing every footfall in the corridor could be the arrival of his executioner. When I met him last November had said: "I thought it would be quick but it has dragged on. I hear noises in the corridor and think the moment has come. When you came, I thought `Maybe this is it'. My mother comes to see me once a month. Each time I have said goodbye to her for the last time."

Pozhedayev, who had been in and out of custody since the age of 11 and whose father was a convicted murderer, was kept in solitary confinement. He had heard the death penalty might soon be abolished and had hoped for life imprisonment on the grounds that "while there is life there is hope".

But on 11 January he was transferred to a special prison in Novocherkassk, southern Russia, with what the authorities called "facilities for carrying out the sentence". He was shot on 18 January. He was 31.

This information was obtained by Igor Chichinov, a reporter in Yelets who had written several articles about Pozhedayev and helped to arrange my interview with him.

The prison service refused to comment further and the authorities' precise thinking in the case remains a mystery. But it seems the intervention of the press may have sealed Pozhedayev's fate.

An official at the courthouse in Yelets told Mr Chichinov: "We received so many letters and phone calls as a result of your articles that we thought it was time to decide the matter of Pozhedayev. Thank you for your useful work." Mr Chichinov had thought he was defending the prisoner. He said: "You can imagine how I feel."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf