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Off for sentencing Belarus is the only country in Europe that still executes people, and here’s how they do it

Meduza
The trial against Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov, convicted of organizing the 2011 Minsk subway bombing. They were sentenced to death and executed in 2012. Minsk, September 2011.
The trial against Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov, convicted of organizing the 2011 Minsk subway bombing. They were sentenced to death and executed in 2012. Minsk, September 2011.
Alexey Gromov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

In January 2018, the Minsk City Court condemned to death two Belarusians: Alexander Zhilnikov and Vyacheslav Sukharko. They were found guilty on three counts of murder, robbery, and document theft. Belarus sentenced a total of three people to capital punishment in 2017. It’s the only state left in Europe or the Commonwealth of Independent States that still executes people. The European Union constantly pressures the Belarusian government to end this practice. In January 2018, European Council Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland again urged Belarus not to carry out the latest two death sentences and to pardon others on death row. Minsk has ignored the appeal. Meduza’s Sasha Sulim took a closer look at 21st century Europe’s last remaining country with capital punishment.

They even went shopping together

Alina Shulganova and Vyacheslav Tikhomorov first met at a shopping mall in August 2013. Twenty-four at the time, she was running a stationery collection drive for children in need, working as a chief specialist at the local branch of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (the country’s biggest pro-government youth organization). Vyacheslav was 29 and working at the mall as a security guard. The two hit it off quickly and she moved in with him just a couple of weeks later. That’s when Victoria Keshikova, Vyacheslav’s 23-year-old ex-girlfriend, entered the picture.

Alina would later tell a court that Keshikova kept calling Vyacheslav on the phone, even coming to their home. Alina claims she found a lipstick-stained glass in the kitchen and crumpled bed sheets in their room. She says Vyacheslav then promised to marry her, “to make amends,” but they never filed the formal paperwork. He later told Alina that he’d invited his ex to live with them, to rescue her from homelessness. For about a month, the two women cohabitated, sharing chores and even going shopping together. Then he told Alina to leave. “He said he was going to stay with Vika. He said they didn’t need me,” she recalled in court.

Alina left, but it wasn’t long before Vyacheslav called her again, saying that he’d suffered a stroke and was in the hospital. Alina says Victoria “refused to care for him,” and he had no one else to help, because his parents lived in Poland. She also claims Vyacheslav complained to her about Victoria, saying that she didn’t sleep at home and wasn’t trying to help.

“I went to him [to his apartment] to help him take his medication, and suddenly Vika came back. Slava didn’t want to let her in, but she started banging on the door. Then he walked her back down the stairs, but she wouldn’t calm down. I became uncomfortable and decided to go home. Vika caught up to me outside, pounced on me, shouting that she’d break my legs. She shoved me, and I fell into a garden, getting cuts and bruises. I’d never even insulted her. Ever,” Alina said in court. 

A deterrent

Belarus is the only European country that still puts prisoners to death — by gunfire, no less, though the state has replaced Soviet firing squads with a single executioner. The law instituting capital punishment in Belarus was lifted straight from the USSR’s Criminal Code. Contentious as it is for the European establishment, Minsk’s policy appears to enjoy broad public support at home. In 1996, more than 80 percent of Belarusians voted in a national referendum to retain the death penalty. A year later, Belarus also introduced 25-year and life sentences for its most heinous crimes. Judges, however, haven’t abandoned the death penalty.

The exact number of executions carried out in Belarus is classified, but estimates by journalists and human rights activists put the total at roughly 400 people since 1990. (For comparison, the United States executed almost 1,350 prisoners in the same time period.) In the mid-1990s, Belarus put to death roughly 47 people a year, though the annual average has dropped in recent years to between zero and four. Experts typically attribute the fall in executions to the fact that judges finally started using the option to sentence convicts to life in prison, instead of death.

In 2009, the local human rights group “Vesna” (Spring), the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, and Amnesty International launched a joint campaign to end the death penalty in Belarus. Andrey Poluda, the project’s coordinator, told Meduza that the offenses punishable by death in Belarus are not considered any graver than those that result in life sentences. This applies to a total of 13 different crimes, but by far the most common offense is aggravated multiple homicide.

In 2011, for the first time ever, a Belarusian judge sentenced two men to death for terrorism. On April 11, 2011, a bomb exploded in the lobby of Minsk’s Kastryčnickaja (October) subway station, killing 15 people. Two days later, the authorities arrested Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov, both from the city of Vitebsk in the country’s northeast. Police argue that the attack was an “attempt to destabilize the situation within the Republic of Belarus.” On November 30, Kovalyov and Konovalov were sentenced to death, and their parents were notified the following March that the sentence had been carried out. Their relatives and various human rights activists say Kovalyov and Konovalov were forced to confess to a crime they didn’t commit, arguing that the attack was actually carried out by the Belarusian security services.

An Amnesty International demonstration in front of the Belarusian embassy in Moscow, April 2013. The sign reads, “We demand an end to death penalties! Belarus must establish a moratorium on capital punishment.”
An Amnesty International demonstration in front of the Belarusian embassy in Moscow, April 2013. The sign reads, “We demand an end to death penalties! Belarus must establish a moratorium on capital punishment.”
Andrey Smirnov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

“Usually, we’re not sentencing serial killers or hired assassins. As a rule, it’s mostly people who go for a knife in a drunken argument, leaving behind a couple of bodies,” explains Amnesty International’s Andrey Poluda, who says capital punishment only makes Belarusian society more hateful. “People start thinking you can only fight crime by killing the criminal.”

Poluda says Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko considers capital punishment to be a “deterrent.” The president has voiced his support for the policy on several occasions, leaning on the 22-year-old referendum as the main argument against reforms. “I can’t unilaterally overrule a decision made by the people,” Lukashenko has said.

Not everyone agrees. Poluda points out that the 1996 referendum was an advisory vote. Given the two decades that have passed, moreover, there’s a whole new generation in Belarus that wasn’t able to participate. Finally, Poluda argues, Belarusian law says the death penalty could be abolished by parliamentary legislation and presidential decree. He thinks Lukashenko is merely worried that abolishing the death penalty could be unpopular with his strongest supporters.

After convicts are sentenced, they have the right to appeal to the Belarusian Supreme Court, though it rarely overturns rulings. Even after a sentence is confirmed, there’s still hope for a presidential pardon, though Lukashenko has only done this once in his 23-year rule. It happened in the late 1990s, and the lucky man was an agronomist named Sergey Potiraev, who killed the chairman of his collective farm out of jealousy. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Because Belarus hasn’t banned or even placed a moratorium on capital punishment (like Russia did in 1996), it is the only European country that is not a member of the Council of Europe. As a result, Belarusians can’t appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. “This means the only way to challenge your verdict in an international organization is through the United Nations Human Rights Committee. However, the sentence is usually put in effect before the Committee has a chance to rule on it,” says Poluda. 

They can't remember why they killed him

Alexander Zhilnikov, 44, and Vyacheslav Sukharko, 23, worked together at a sawmill. Zhilnikov spent several years in prison in the 1990s for hooliganism and attempted theft, but he managed to stay out of trouble after his release. Sukharko was orphaned at a young age and left to fend for himself. Before he became a murderer, he had no criminal record, though the police had picked him up several times for public intoxication.

The two men weren’t close friends, but in December 2015, when Zhilnikov got into a fight with his wife, Sukharko invited him to stay at the apartment he was renting outside Minsk.

Zhilnikov and Sukharko spent the next several days drinking heavily. Later, neither could remember why they decided to kill Sukharko’s landlord. They struck the 59-year-old man 33 times with a metal rod and then stole $10,000 from him.

That same day, Zhilnikov decided to go home and make up with his wife. At the entrance to his apartment building, he ran into Alina Shulganova, a neighbor who’d just found a job as a kindergarten teacher. They talked and Shulganova told him her story, explaining how her boyfriend cheated on her with another woman. Eventually, she asked him to help “get rid of the competition.” Later, Zhilnikov described the conversation to police as follows: “[Shulganova] is not a particularly good-looking woman. I thought she had difficulties with men. I dropped by to drink some beer and she told me that her boyfriend was cheating on her and that she wanted to teach him a lesson.” He says he immediately decided to ask Sukharko for help with “resolving” the matter.

Several times, Shulganova changed her testimony about her deal with Zhilnikov. Initially, she said she asked him to steal Viktoria Keshikova’s residency documents (so that Keshikova would have to go back to her home city to get them reissued). Later, she claimed that Sukharko was supposed to seduce Keshikova. Finally, Shulganova said Zhilnikov and Sukharko were only supposed to beat up Keshikova.

Shulganova paid Zhilnikov and Sukharko an advance of about $100, told them where Tikhomorov lived, and provided a photograph of the couple. “I guess I thought there would be some minor injuries — some bruises and scratches. After all, I was hurt, too, when Vika attacked me. But I never thought they’d commit such a terrible crime,” Shulganova later said in her own defense.

On the evening of December 16, 2015, Zhilnikov and Sukharko came to the door of the apartment shared by Tikhomorov and Keshikova. When Vyacheslav opened the door, the two men shoved their way inside and proceeded to stab him in the chest 80 times. When Victoria got home, Zhilnikov and Sukharko stabbed her 60 times. The killers stole what money they could find (about $300), along with the couple’s clothes, some candy, a cake, and Keshikova’s passport (to show to Shulganova as proof). During the trial, Zhilnikov said that Sukharko took the candy as a present for his girlfriend, whose birthday was two days later.

Immediately after the killings, Zhilnikov and Sukharko went to Shulganova and collected the rest of their payment: another $150. 

Shulganova later told the court that she regretted not reporting the crime right away, saying it might have afforded her a “more lenient sentence.”

Tikhomorov’s mother was the one who finally discovered the bodies. Five days had passed by the time she came to the apartment.

Ordinary people from the detention center in downtown Minsk

The Minsk Detention Center No. 1, also known as “Valadarka” (because it’s on Valadarskaha Street), is right in the center of Minsk. It was built in 1825 as the city’s central prison. Within walking distance, you’ll find the Gorky Drama Theater, Belarus’s House of Government, and the Church of Saints Simon and Helena (one of Minsk’s most famous landmarks).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the detention center was used to lock up Bolsheviks and other anti-Tsarist figures. Ivan Pulichaŭ, a socialist-revolutionary who tried to assassinate Minsk Governor Pavel Kurlov, was hanged what would later become the prison’s basement. On the night of October 30, 1937, officials executed thirty-six Belarusian artists, scientists, and other cultural figures in that same basement. Throughout the Stalinist repressions, more than 100 people were killed here. This same site, now home to Detention Center. No. 2, is where Belarus keeps its death row inmates today. When it’s time to execute these people, however, they’re taken somewhere else — to a classified location.

In 1996, Oleg Alkaev was made the head of Minsk Detention Center No. 1. Before this appointment, he served outside the capital as the head of Novosady’s Correctional Colony No. 14. “I knew that, as the head of Detention Center No. 1, I would have to lead a squad tasked with carrying out death sentences,” he told Meduza over Skype.

In 2000, Alkaev reported to the Interior Ministry that Colonel Dmitry Pavlichenko, the prison’s special operations head, requested a handgun on orders from Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Savikov, just days before the disappearance of three dissidents: Yury Zacharanka, Viktar Hanchar, and Anatol Krasouski. Alkaev speculated that the gun was used to kill the opposition figures. In November 2000, Belarusian Attorney General Oleg Bozhelko signed an arrest warrant for Pavlichenko, but Pavlichenko was released after President Lukashenko intervened personally. When Alkaev’s report was leaked to the press in 2001, he fled the country and ultimately found asylum in Germany.

In his 2006 book, “Shooters Team,” Alkaev explains in detail the procedure by which Belarus executes prisoners. Now 65 years old, the former prison official gladly discusses his past work. “I am not bothered [that I took part in executions]. I sleep well, and I eat well,” he told Meduza.“We don’t sit around debating traffic rules. The law is clear and it must be obeyed.”

Alkaev says he handpicked the members of his prison’s execution squad, which numbered between 10 and 13 men. Their names remain classified. “They were always the same people,” he says. “There was no point in shuffling them — they needed to get used to it.” According to Alkaev, psychological stability and conscientiousness were his two main criteria when choosing executioners. “I kept track of how people did their jobs, what movies they watched, and never even considered people with violent tendencies.” Once, he says he had to remove two squad members for “sadistic behavior.” “I could have turned a blind eye to it,” Alkaev says, “but I thought that jabbing the criminals in the ribs to remind them that they killed a person was excessive.”

Alkaev says his team was comprised of “regular people who ordinarily worked in the detention center in regular capacities.” They weren’t “supermen” or “special forces soldiers with bulging muscles.” They were people “who didn’t look like morons.”

He also refers to the executioners’ team as an “elite squad,” membership in which was highly sought after by almost all of his employees, thanks largely to the fact that members received promotions and pay bonuses. “Nobody ever refused. Who really cares about someone else’s life? I don’t imagine that people who work in slaughterhouses think about the animals’ fate. This emotional hand-wringing was alien to the staff,” says Alkaev, admitting however that he still remembers his first execution.

During his five years managing Minsk Detention Center No. 1, roughly 150 prisoners were put to death.

“Just do something with me”

Zhilnikov and Sukharko were arrested a day after the bodies of Tikhomorov and Keshikova were discovered. It would be a while longer still before police learned about the murder of Sukharko’s landlord. The first hearing in their triple-homicide case got underway in mid-December 2016.

Sukharko immediately confessed, saying he and Zhilnikov had too much to drink and “took things too far.” After the murders, Sukharko says his older friend, Zhilnikov, asked him to take the blame. He apparently convinced Sukharko that he wouldn’t get more than five years in prison, and he promised to send him care packages.

At the first hearing, Sukharko asked the judge for permission not to attend further hearings, claiming that he was ashamed of what he’d done, that he dreamt of the eyes of victims, and even said, “Just do something with me.” At the next hearing, Sukharko started pounding his head into the wall, trying to harm himself. The judge had him removed from the courthouse.

Zhilnikov made a partial confession, claiming that Sukharko committed all three murders, while he only helped conceal the evidence and failed to report the crime. Prosecutors charged Sukharko with the murders and treated Zhilnikov as an accomplice.

During the trial, Tomas Zabelo (Vyacheslav Tikhomorov’s stepfather from Poland), reportedly told the court, “If a man takes another man’s life, then he deserves the same thing.” Viktoria Keshikova’s father, on the other hand, stated his opposition to the death penalty, saying that execution would be “too light a punishment” for the men who killed his daughter. “Let them rot in prison for the rest of their lives,” he argued.

In February 2017, the prosecutor’s office asked the court to sentence Zhilnikov and Sukharko to death, and Shulganova to 15 years in prison.

In her closing statement, Alina Shulganova once again voiced her regret about not reporting the crime to the authorities. “If something like this happens to me again,” she said, “I will never conceal this information from investigators. I will always report it so that it won’t happen anymore.”

Zhilnikov begged his victims’ families for forgiveness. “A horrible tragedy took place. Innocent people died. I offer my condolences to the families. I am ready to be punished,” he said.

Sukharko declined the opportunity to make any final remarks, telling his lawyer simply that he agreed to be executed, believing it would be easier for the victims’ families.

In March 2017, the court sentenced Zhilnikov and Sukharko to life in prison for murder, robbery, and theft. Shulganova got 12 years for organizing the crime. The prosecution thought the sentences were too lenient, however, and the state appealed to the Supreme Court. In July 2017, Zhilnikov and Shulganova told the court they hoped for leniency (“I’m an idiot, not an assassin,” Zhilnikov said), while Sukharko asked again to be put to death. When a judge asked why he wanted to be executed, Sukharko answered, “I don’t know how I can live with this.” The Supreme Court ordered a retrial.

During the retrial, the court released the details of Zhilnikov and Sukharko’s police interrogations, where Zhilnikov tried to pin the murders on Sukharko, claiming that his friend also planned to kill Shulganova as a loose end. “We came back to Alina, and told her we overdid it. We said we killed them both and that she had to pay us more. Alina started crying, but then calmed down,” Zhilnikov told investigators, according to the Russian state news agency Sputnik.

This time, on January 20, 2018, the Minsk City Court sentenced both Zhilnikov and Sukharko to death. Once again, Shulganova was sent to prison for 12 years. Sukharko said he accepted the ruling, but his lawyer and the other defendants’ attorneys promised to appeal.

Mentally broken people

Usually, at least a year passes before Belarus carries out a death sentence. There are exceptions, however, like Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov, who were executed just three months after being convicted of organizing the Minsk subway bombings.

According to Oleg Alkaev, the timing of all executions is up to the head of Detention Center No. 1. Belarusian law gives them a month to settle on a date. “Before my appointment, convicts weren’t allowed to receive any packages, but I changed the policy. If someone got food from the outside, I let them finish it. A lot of them were aware of this, and they knew they could take their time, if they got anything to eat,” Alkaev says.

On the day of an execution, the head guard on death row receives a special transfer document for an inmate, stating the destination point as the “Minsk-Passazhirsky” railway station. According to the paperwork, prisoners are supposed to be taken to the train station, but in reality “they’re never seen again,” Alkaev explains.

When Alkaev took over at the prison in 1996, executions were carried out in the forest. Inmates were gunned down just a stone’s throw from their freshly-dug graves. “This was barbaric and it caused further unlawful and undue suffering to these people,” Alkaev told Meduza, “So I cancelled it and moved the whole procedure to a special secret indoor location, where executions could take place in calmer conditions.”

When Belarus carries out death sentences, it usually executes several prisoners on the same day. Inmates are taken from Detention Center No. 1 and loaded onto a special police van with additional security. “The van came to a special location, the gates closed, and inside there were rooms for the guards and for the prisoners. Besides my squad members, there was also usually a prosecutor, a doctor, and someone from a supervisory agency,” Alkaev says.

The prisoners were then led in, one by one, and their identities were confirmed. Next, the prosecutor read out a statement establishing that all the convicts had been denied pardons. “According to our instructions, we asked them if they understood their sentences, but by this time they’d half lost their minds and could barely answer. Then we either blindfolded them or covered their heads with dark bags with openings (not for their eyes, but to pool the blood), and moved them into the next room with the executioner. As a rule, it was the same person for all of them, but everyone was willing to take up the weapon. The prisoner was then forced to their knees and shot in the back of the head. Sometimes, when the doctor could still find a heartbeat, we had to fire a second or even third bullet,” Oleg Alkaev recalls.

He says inmates never actively resisted during this process. “These are mentally broken, disturbed people. It’s hard for me to define their psychological condition, but I think they’re already somewhere far away, by the time they’re executed.”

Alkaev says Belarus introduced a small change in its death penalty policy after he “escaped” from the country (though the reform was actually made in January 2000, a year before he fled). The new Criminal Code statute prohibits the use of capital punishment against convicts with severe mental conditions who can’t be held responsible for their actions. According to the law, these individuals must receive mandatory psychiatric care, though a court can still consider the death penalty against convicts who “recover” their mental health.

“Nobody ever used this statute — not even the human rights activists who advocate abolishing capital punishment. They’re silent about it,” Alkaev complains, saying that an inmate’s mother, for example, could visit her son and file a statement claiming that he is mentally unfit, and the detention center’s warden would be required to consider the appeal.

When a prisoner is executed, their relatives aren’t notified until a few days later. The law prohibits releasing executed inmates’ bodies, and their burial sites also remain classified. “On the death certificate, under ‘cause of death,’ they usually just put a dash, but sometimes they write: ‘Due to the enforcement of a sentence’ or just ‘Undefined,’” explains human rights activist Andrey Poluda. He says relatives often go the Minsk Northern Cemetery to look for fresh graves, hoping to find their loved ones there in the dirt, but they never do.

Poluda thinks the death penalty today in Belarus differs little from executions in the Soviet Union. “During Soviet times, the secrecy was required because of the scale of the repressions. No changes were made after the fall of the USSR,” he says.

Alkaev says he spoke to the mother of nearly every inmate he helped execute. “I never fainted after any of these encounters, of course. Nature took care of me and freed me from those emotions, otherwise I wouldn’t have lasted a week. But you can imagine what it was like: She comes with a package for her son, and you’ve got just three words for her: off for sentencing. Where exactly they’d taken him, they never specified.”

Story by Sasha Sulim, translation by Aidar Dossymov