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Russia Has No Formal Death Penalty. Here’s How That Might Change.

WorldEuropeRussia Has No Formal Death Penalty. Here’s How That Might Change.

The attack at a concert hall just outside Moscow that killed 139 people last Friday has prompted some Russians to call for bringing back capital punishment in Russia, and to execute the assailants.

Through a combination of presidential action and court rulings, Russia has had a moratorium on the death penalty for 28 years. And yet capital punishment remains on the books — suspended but not abolished outright.

Russian officials disagree on whether and how it could be resurrected, and the country’s Constitutional Court said on Tuesday that it would look into the matter.

Here is a look at where the issue stands.

A number of public figures have demanded execution of the concert hall attackers, described by officials as militant Islamists from Tajikistan, in Central Asia. Such calls have surfaced periodically, particularly after terrorist attacks, but it is not clear how widespread support for them is, and they have prominent opponents, too.

On Monday, Dmitri A. Medvedev, a former president and prime minister of Russia, wrote on Telegram: “Is it necessary to kill them? Necessary. And it will be done.”

He added that everyone who was involved in the attacks, including those who funded and supported them, should be killed.

But Lidia Mikheeva, the secretary of the Civic Chamber, a government advisory group, told the state news agency Tass that ending the death penalty was one of the most important accomplishments in modern Russian history. “If we don’t want to roll back to a time of savagery and barbarism, then we should all stop and think,” she said.

Nothing is likely to change without the say-so of Vladimir V. Putin, the autocratic president who largely controls the Parliament. He has publicly, repeatedly opposed the death penalty in years past.

Mr. Putin and his security apparatus have often been accused of killing or trying to kill his enemies, at home or abroad — journalists, political opponents, business leaders, former spies and others. The opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt with a nerve agent, died last month in a Russian prison system that his allies said had mistreated him and denied him medical care.

And yet in 2002, Mr. Putin said, “as long as it’s up to me, there will be no death penalty in Russia,” though he said reinstating it would be popular. In 2007, he said at a conference that formal capital punishment was “senseless and counterproductive,” according to Russian media reports. In 2022, he said his position “has not changed.”

As for the debate after the concert hall massacre, “We are not currently taking part in this discussion,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, according to Tass.

The Soviet Union was one of the world’s most frequent users of capital punishment, and after the country broke up, Russia continued to carry out executions.

But in 1996, to win admission to the Council of Europe, a human rights group, President Boris N. Yeltsin, Mr. Putin’s predecessor, agreed to place a moratorium on the death penalty and to completely abolish it within three years.

Russia’s Parliament did not go along with the plan. It did not ratify the European Convention on Human Rights, which Mr. Yeltsin’s government had signed, and it adopted a new criminal code that kept capital punishment as an option.

In 1999, the Constitutional Court stepped in, ruling that until jury trials were in place across Russia, the death penalty could not be used. In 2009, after jury trials had been instituted, the court ruled the moratorium would remain in effect, abiding by the Council of Europe’s rules, in part because more than a decade without capital punishment had given people an expectation that it would not be used.

“Stable guarantees of the human right not to be subjected to the death penalty have been formed and a constitutional and legal regime has emerged,” the court wrote.

That is unclear.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Council of Europe expelled Russia, meaning Moscow was no longer considered a party to its human rights convention — the original basis for the moratorium.

At the time, Valeriy D. Zorkin, the head of the Constitutional Court, said that bringing back the death penalty back would be impossible without adopting a new Constitution.

“Despite the current extraordinary situation, I think it would be a big mistake to turn away from the path of humanization of legislative policy that we have generally followed in recent decades,” he said in a lecture at the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum. “And, in particular, a rejection of the moratorium on the death penalty in Russia, which some politicians are already calling for, would now be a very bad signal to society.”

But some politicians insisted that without the human rights convention as a barrier, capital punishment could be reinstated without any constitutional change.

That position voiced this week by Vyacheslav V. Volodin, speaker of the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Parliament. The Constitutional Court, he said, could lift the moratorium.

“Me and you all, we left the Council of Europe, right? Right,” he said.

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