Capital Offense

By Houghteling, Charlotte | Harvard International Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Capital Offense


Houghteling, Charlotte, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

The violent crime rate in the former USSR continues to increase by 10% annually. As crime rates reach staggering heights, federal and local officials are searching for the proper means of punishing new criminals. In light of some former Soviet republics' interest in European integration, the debate focuses on how to balance the former authoritarian stance against more liberal methods of deterring crime. The central dilemma the former Soviet states face is deciding the most effective means of reversing their region's continual rise in violent crime while considering the humanity and acceptability of those methods.

Text:

Headnote:

Reducing Crime in the Former Soviet Union

There isn't a better killer in the world than me, and I don't regret a thing," claims Anatoly Onopriyenko, who between 1989 and 1996 brutally murdered 42 adults and ten children in the Lviv region of western Ukraine.

Though the Ukrainian government vowed to abolish capital punishment when it joined the Council of Europe in 1995, the regional court of Zhytomir sentenced Onopriyenko to death on April 1, 1999. Nearly 350 others wait on death row in Ukraine, while in neighboring Russia almost 900 have been sentenced to death. Meanwhile, the violent-crime rate in the former USSR continues to increase by ten percent annually. As crime rates reach staggering heights, federal and local officials are searching for the proper means of punishing the new criminals. In light of some former Soviet republics' interest in European integration, the debate focuses on how to balance the former authoritarian stance against more liberal methods of deterring crime.

The severity of the crimes as well as the variety of solutions being implemented exemplify the many arenas of innovation the former Soviet states are pioneering as they try to stabilize themselves as republics. The temptation to return to the authoritarian tradition of the past is hard to resist, but most governments are determined to replace the death penalty with other mechanisms--everything from life sentences in prison and hard labor to experimental, new--age psychiatric treatments.

The rise in crime is often attributed to recent political instability and economic hardship. As Professor Aleksandr Bukhanovsky, a psychiatrist and serial-killer expert, observes, "We live in conditions where it is hard even for the healthy mind to remain sane ... [Russia] is going through an evil time, and so evil is flourishing around us." The tumultuous process of shifting the Russian government from a Communist regime to a republican government has left crime-fighting institutions unformed or ill-defined. The courts have not readjusted since the end of Communism, leading to disputes over jurisdiction. In Ukraine, for example, Onopriyenko's trial was delayed for IS months due to a lack of local judicial funds.

In the Russian State Duma, politicians are contriving their own methods of crime deterrence that avoid capital punishment. The Duma Speaker, Gennady Seleznyov, proposes a return to punishments of strenuous manual labor, insisting that arduous physical work in forests and quarries, for example, would put such a toll on criminals that they would "pray to God every day to send them death." Yet such penalties harken back to the years of Communist work camps and the dark history of Stalinist authoritarianism. Support for such penalties raises the question of which punishment is more in keeping with the region's halting movement toward republicanism: the work camp or the shooting squad?

In Ukraine, President Leonid Kuchma announced the decision to lift the moratorium on capital punishment specifically for Onopriyenko in November 1998. Although Russia is reluctant to lift its own moratorium, it has not yet abolished the death penalty despite promises made to the Council of Europe. The proposed deadline of February 28, 1999, came and went without a change in official policy. …

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