Russia's new liberalism fails death row man

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The Independent Online


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."