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BY Lynne Weil
Catholic News Service
ROME—The death penalty is disappearing from Europe as former members of the Communist bloc, now trying to gain acceptance in other international groups, change their penal codes.
In 1997 and 1998, several Central and Eastern European countries reduced or eliminated their use of capital punishment.
The changes coincided with an adaptation of the Catholic Church's position on the death penalty, starting with the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), in which Pope John Paul II stated stronger-than-ever reservations about capital punishment.
The definitive Latin edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1997, included revisions which echoed the pope's statement that cases in which execution is necessary are “very rare” and “practically nonexistent.”
On Christmas Day 1998, after about 5,000 people completed an anti-death-penalty march to St. Peter's Square, Pope John Paul attracted global attention by calling for a worldwide commitment to end capital punishment.
The pope lauded Bulgaria in mid-December for scrapping capital punishment. In a speech to the new Bulgarian ambassador to the Holy See, the pope said he rejoiced “at the decision taken recently by your leaders to abolish the death penalty.”
Lithuania's parliament on Dec. 22 also abolished capital punishment, even though opinion polls show that more than 80 percent of Lithuanians favor it.
The parliament based its action on a ruling in early December by Lithuania's highest court, which declared the death penalty unconstitutional.
Recent public opinion polls in Poland also reflect wide popular support for capital punishment. Nevertheless, a law abolishing it came into effect in 1998. The use of capital punishment in Poland was suspended with the fall of its Communist government.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International noted in a December 1998 report that opinion polls in a number of countries without capital punishment showed broad support for its use. But the agency cautions that such polls can be misleading.
“Although a majority of the public favors the death penalty in a given country, it is also the case that a majority of the public is willing to accept abolition,” Amnesty reported.
“This is a feature of public opinion which is not usually revealed by polls asking respondents to state their position on the death penalty. If the questions were more sophisticated, the polls would probably give a better sense of the complexities of public opinion.”
Amnesty reported that 104 countries no longer practice the death penalty: 65 have abolished it, 15 employ capital punishment only in exceptional cases such as crimes committed during wartime, and 24 have eliminated its use in practice, because they have had no executions for 10 or more years.
Ninety-one countries in the world retain the death penalty, the agency said.
One of them, the Russian Federation, has declared its intention to eliminate the death penalty in 1999. Russia's justice ministry issued a statement in August saying the country would abolish capital punishment by next April.
This statement is in keeping with a commitment Russia made upon joining the Council of Europe in 1996. The council, which includes non-European Union states and is considered one of the stepping-stones to EU membership, has established a European Convention on Human Rights which binds signatories not to use capital punishment in peacetime.
After Russia and Ukraine -- which also signed the convention -- executed a number of prisoners in 1997, council members threatened to withdraw the accreditation of their delegations, a move which could eventually lead to expulsion.
One reported execution occurred each in Russia and Ukraine in 1998.
The Council of Europe also monitors other former Warsaw Pact nations’ steps toward eliminating capital punishment. Among them are Georgia, which abolished the death penalty in November 1997; BosniaHerzegovina, where crimes committed in peacetime no longer merit execution; and Kazakhstan, which in 1998 passed a law limiting to three the number of offenses which could be punished with death.
Recently the European Union has taken steps to eliminate the death penalty outside its membership of 15 countries. In June 1998 the EU general affairs council adopted a policy to promote abolition of capital punishment worldwide. And in 1997 the European Parliament passed a resolution affirming its strong opposition to capital punishment, calling on all countries to adopt a moratorium on executions.
The pope also applauded the formation of an Italian group, Parliamentarians Against the Death Penalty, of 120 national legislators who formed a multiparty group in July 1998 to fight capital punishment.
The Holy Father told the group he was “happy” that “a moratorium on executions is supported by people who have high office and can, therefore, contribute effectively to its reception.”