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Executions Accelerate in Russia

Seeking European favor, Yeltsin vowed to end the death penalty. But crime is fueling public ire, inmates are condemned every few days, and the president, facing an election, is rejecting all appeals.


VORONEZH, Russia — The days pass slowly in Cell No. 103. Alexei Velichko and his three cellmates read dog-eared books, nap on bunks and stare blankly at four green walls. Sometimes they talk but never about death, which hangs as heavy as the foul cigarette haze here on Russia's Death Row.

Velichko, a professional hunter with no previous criminal record, killed a drunken forest ranger during an argument two years ago. A quick trial was followed by a death sentence. Now he spends 24 hours a day in this coffin-shaped cell, emerging for a monthly visit with his wife and 7-year-old son, who always cries when he sees his father.

"Do I have hope?" said Velichko, eyeing his questioner, thinking it over. "It's the hope that dies last. A person like me lives only on hope."

The 29-year-old inmate probably will be executed, as will the other 18 men who wear the black and gray stripes of Death Row in this provincial capital 300 miles south of Moscow. So will the 630 inmates in similar circumstances across Russia and those being sentenced to death at the rate of one every few days.

In each case, a single bullet will be fired into the back of the inmate's head. The body will be burned; the family will never see the ashes.

Huge societal changes have rocked Russia in its tortured transition to democracy, and now, in the run-up to the June 16 presidential election, the future of capital punishment is emerging as yet another sign of that upheaval.

On one side are Russian leaders seeking acceptance in the capitals of Western Europe, where the death penalty is banned. On the other is an electorate fed up with skyrocketing crime, demanding vengeance at the ultimate price.

In some ways, the debate in Russia mirrors that in the United States, where the death penalty is legal in California and 37 other states. On Friday, Keith Daniel Williams, 48, who murdered three Merced County residents, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at San Quentin. His appeal for clemency was denied last week by Gov. Pete Wilson, who declared that "for certain crimes, justice demands the ultimate punishment."

Williams will be the second inmate put to death in California this year and the fourth since the state lifted a 25-year moratorium on the death penalty in 1992.

That same year, the death penalty in Russia seemed on its way out. To great fanfare, President Boris N. Yeltsin created a Death Penalty Review Commission heavily weighted with mercy-minded intellectuals. He followed the panel's recommendations religiously, commuting 340 of 365 death sentences during its first three years.

But suddenly, the pendulum has swung back sharply, and Yeltsin has been rejecting commission recommendations. Since the beginning of 1995, he has commuted only five death sentences and ordered 132 executions. (By comparison, 56 inmates were executed in the United States last year.) Not a single inmate has been spared by the Russian president in the past year, commission officials say.

"Our opinion plays no role whatsoever anymore," said Anatoly Pristavkin, a noted novelist and chairman of the review commission. "These executions will be carried out. No one can stop them except the president himself. And he knows the public sentiment. He knows what he's doing. For now, there will be no more mercy."

Yeltsin's apparent change of heart is part of a risky political game. Frustrated by his government's inability to stop rising crime, he is wooing voters with a new hard line on executions.

"Everything is geared to politics now," said Pristavkin. "He who dares to say he's going to abolish capital punishment will certainly lose a lot of votes."

At the same time, in an attempt to be accepted as a partner by European nations, Yeltsin has promised to abolish the death penalty within three years.

Getting rid of capital punishment is a requirement for joining the Council of Europe, a group concerned with human rights issues. And council membership is viewed by Russian leaders as an important step toward joining the economic powers of Europe.

Although capital punishment was abolished three times in Russia during the early part of the century, those pauses were brief. Since the procedure was last reinstituted, in the mid-1950s, Russia has had one of the world's highest execution rates. In the past decade, at least 1,200 people have been put to death, according to the Death Penalty Review Commission. That is nearly three times the number of inmates executed in the United States over the past 20 years.

While Williams has been on California's Death Row for 17 years, most Russian inmates spend no more than a year or two waiting for the sentence to be carried out. Any appeal in Russia is dealt with quickly--too quickly in the view of human rights activists.

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