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The Death Penalty

Andrei Sakharov was unable to attend the Amnesty International Conference on the Abolition of the Death Penalty held in Stockholm in December. He sent the following statement instead.

I regard the death penalty as a savage and immoral institution which undermines the moral and legal foundations of a society. A state, acting through its functionaries, who like all people are inclined to arrive at superficial conclusions, and who like all people are subject to influences, connections, prejudices, and egocentric motivations for their behavior, takes upon itself the right to the most terrible and irreversible act—the deprivation of life. Such a state cannot expect an improvement of the moral atmosphere in its country. I reject the notion that the death penalty has any essential deterrent effect on potential offenders. I am convinced that the contrary is true—that savagery begets only savagery.

I deny that the death penalty is practically necessary or effective as a means of defending society. The temporary isolation of offenders which may be necessary in some cases must be achieved by more humane and more flexible measures which can be amended in the event of judicial error or changes in society or in the personality of the offender.

I am convinced that society as a whole and each of its members individually, not just the person who comes before the courts, bears a responsibility for the occurrence of a crime. There are no simple solutions for reducing and eliminating crime, and in any event the death penalty provides no answer. The reduction of crime and even its full elimination can be achieved in the future only through the prolonged evolution of society, a general humanistic ascent instilling in people a deep respect for life and human reason, and greater attentiveness to the difficulties and problems of one’s neighbor. So humane a society is now no more than a dream, and only acts of humaneness today can create hope for the possibility of its realization in the future.

I consider that the essential importance of the full abolition of the death penalty justifies our turning away from those objections made by advocates of its retention which are based on fragmentary or exceptional circumstances.

While still a child I shuddered when I read the distinguished anthology Against the Death Penalty, published in Russia in 1906-1907, with the participation of my grandfather I.N. Sakharov, during the years of executions after the 1905 revolution (Sytin Publishers). I know the impassioned statements of the writers Lev Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Korolenko, Rozanov, Andreyev, and many others. From the above-mentioned anthology I know the arguments of a number of scholars—Solovyov, Bazhenov (the psychology of condemned persons), Gernet, Goltsovsky, Davydov, and others. I share their conviction that with its psychological horror the death penalty is not commensurate with the majority of crimes and that it is never a just retribution or punishment. And indeed there can be no question of punishing a person who has ceased to exist. Like them I believe that the death penalty has no moral or practical justification and that it represents a survival of barbaric customs of revenge. Cold-blooded and calculated revenge, without personal danger for the executioners, without the excuse of temporary insanity on the part of the judges, and therefore shameful and disgusting.

I pause briefly to mention the currently widely discussed subject of terrorism. I believe that the death penalty is totally ineffective in the struggle against terrorism and other political crimes committed with fanatical motives. In such cases the death penalty serves only as a catalyst for the larger psychosis of lawlessness, revenge, and savagery. This does not mean that I in any way justify contemporary political terrorism, which is often accompanied by the deaths of uninvolved persons who just happen to be on the scene, by the taking of hostages including children, and by other dreadful crimes. However I am convinced that prison confinement, possibly under laws which would in cases indicated by the court forbid release ahead of sentence, is a more rational means of preventing further acts of terror by physically and psychologically isolating the terrorists.

The abolition of the death penalty is especially important in such a country as ours, with its unrestricted dominance of state power and uncontrollable bureaucracy, and its widespread contempt for law and moral values. You know of the decades of mass executions of innocent people which were carried out without any semblance of justice (while still more people perished without any court judgment at all). We are still living in the moral atmosphere created in that era.

I wish especially to draw your attention to the fact that in the USSR the death penalty is assigned to many crimes which in no way involve attempts on human life. Many will remember for example the case of Rokotov and Faibishenko, who were charged in 1961 with underground trade in valuables and illegal currency operations. During the time when these two had already been sentenced to prison confinement the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet adopted a law which provided the death penalty for major crimes against property. They were put on trial again and in violation of the most elementary judicial principle they were sentenced retroactively to death. Subsequently many others were sentenced to death under this and similar laws, especially for private entrepreneurial activity, the organization of cartels, etc. In 1962 an old man was shot for having prepared a few counterfeit coins which he buried in his yard.

The total number of executions in the USSR is not known—these facts are officially secret—but there are grounds to suppose that it now comprises several hundred persons per year—that is, more than in most other countries where this barbaric institution still exists. There are also other features of our contemporary reality which are relevant to the matter under discussion. I mean the grievously low cultural and moral level of our present criminal procedure, its subservience to the state, and frequently its corruption, accessibility to bribes, and dependence on local “leadership.”

I receive a great many letters from persons convicted in criminal cases. Although I cannot check out these cases in every concrete instance, taken together they create an irrefutable and terrible picture of illegality and injustice, of superficial and prejudiced investigation, of the impossibility of obtaining review of clearly mistaken or dubious verdicts, of beatings during police questioning.

Some of these cases involve death sentences. Here is one such case. I have before me a copy of the court verdict in the case of Rafkat Shaimukhamedov, documents on his case prepared by lawyers, letters by his mother. On May 31, 1974, in Issyk-Kule, Shaimukhamedov, a worker and by nationality a Tatar, was sentenced to be shot. He had been convicted of murdering a female shop assistant—while intending to commit robbery along with two accomplices. (The latter were sentenced to several years’ imprisonment.) Shaimukhamedov denied his guilt, refused to ask for pardon, and declared a hunger strike. He passed twenty months in the death cell expecting either execution or a review of his case. Throughout this time his mother and lawyers submitted dozens of complaints, but all higher authorities sent them back without any examination of the matter. In January 1976 the sentence was executed with the sanction of the Deputy Procurator of the USSR, Malyarov.

The court verdict on Shaimukhamedov is striking for its illiteracy, both in the literal sense and the juridical sense of the word, its lack of proofs, and its contradictory nature. An even more vivid picture emerges from the complaints of the lawyers and the mother’s letters. The convicted person’s presence at the scene of the crime was not proved. The court ignored the contradictory versions of the accusation, the testimony of witnesses, and the facts of the expert examination (according to which the victim’s blood group did not match that of a spot of blood found on Shaimukhamedov’s clothing). The mother’s letters state that the reason for this bias was the selfish material interest of two procurators (Bekboyeva and Kleishna). She describes scenes of extortion, bribes received by them from another accused, the fabrication of a criminal case against her second son with the same goal of extortion—even after the shooting of Rafkat. I cannot verify these reports, but to me the main message is clear: with what ease and absence of argument the death penalty was passed, and how easily so terrible a case becomes routine.

I have dwelt on this case in detail because it seems to me that it clearly reflects the complete horror of the death penalty and its corrupting effect on society.

I hope that this symposium will make a contribution to the noble effort of many generations toward the complete abolition of the death penalty throughout the world.

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