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…

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