This article was first published in April 2014 by Adaria Gushtyn for the website Spring 96, the website of Human Rights Center “Viasna”, a Belarusian non-governmental human rights organisation. It is one of three articles by Adaria Gushtyn, Russian language winner of PRI’s first competition for investigative journalism on the death penalty and life imprisonment.
Aleksandr Grunov, a 26-year old from the city of Gomel has had his death sentence upheld. His lawyer said that Aleksandr does not believe the President can grant him clemency. It is not yet known whether he will submit an appeal for clemency at all.
On 8 April the [Belarus] Supreme Court considered a second appeal by Aleksandr Grunov against a sentence of death handed down by the Gomel District Court. The young man was found guilty of aggravated murder (in line with Section 6(2), Article 139 of the [Belarus] Criminal Code).
Student from Gomel murdered
On 20 September 2012, Aleksandr killed the student Natalia Emelyanchikova, whom he knew. He explained in court that, some time before the murder, Natalia had insulted him in front of some of their friends, and had not apologised. Aleksandr had started to become aggressive, and ended by stabbing Natalia 102 times.
That was all the information that was published on most websites at the time; but there are a number of other details that should not be left out.
Aleksandr knew Natalia’s brother very well. Both men were members of skinhead gangs and both have criminal records. Natalia’s brother looked up to Aleksandr. They were often in contact, and had been good friends for a time.
The friendship between the two men is probably why Natalia and Aleksandr ended up mixing in the same group of friends and getting to know each other. Without meaning to, she grossly insulted Aleksandr by using a word which, for someone who has spent time behind bars, is extremely insulting. Natalia’s brother, who also has a criminal record, knew the rules of the game “in the slammer.” He explained to her that she should apologise for using words like that, but she did not do this.
When interviewed by the police, Aleksandr said that he would not have killed Natalia if she had apologised.
Aleksandr’s criminal past
Interestingly, before Natalia’s murder, Aleksandr had already been convicted of aggravated assault against his mother’s partner, who subsequently died from his injuries. Aleksandr was sentenced to eight years in prison. His mother said that there had been bad blood between the stepson and stepfather, and the assault had occurred when the two men were arguing one day.
Aleksandr’s life has been a long way from being carefree. When he was still a small boy, his father was killed. The murderer was never found. His mother then lived with various men, with whom she drank heavily. As a result, Aleksandr lived that same sort of life. Interestingly, Natalia’s mother was also present at a number of Mrs Grunov’s drinking binges.
Relations between Natalia’s and Aleksandr’s mothers have now broken down. At every court hearing, the mother of the murdered girl has insisted that Aleksandr should be sentenced to death. During the last hearing, she said in a statement to the court: “He deserves to be executed. I hope that I won’t have to take this issue to our president himself.”
Before the final Supreme Court ruling was handed down, Lukashenko met State Prosecutor Koniuk and said that Aleksandr should receive the most severe sentence available.
The court case
Court proceedings for this case lasted almost six months, spread over about 20 separate sessions. The prosecution immediately demanded the harshest penalty: death by shooting. The Gomel District Court ended by agreeing to that demand. Aleksandr and his defence lawyer then lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court.
At a session of the Supreme Court in October, defence counsel Sergei Krasnov stressed that the Belarus penal code provides for other forms of punishment apart from the death penalty: imprisonment for between eight and twenty-five years, or even life imprisonment.
Krasnov referred to norms of international law and the ways in which they are reflected in domestic legislation. He also outlined to the Supreme Court Bench a range of mistakes that had been found in files relating to the case and which the District Court had not taken into account.
In particular, Krasnov highlighted violations around:
- the presumption of innocence (Article 26 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and section 2, article 14 of the the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR));
- the principle of equal representation in court and transparency of the legal process (Article 22 of the Belarus Constitution and Article 24 of the Belarus Criminal Procedural Code).
He also set out a number of contradictions in the expert psychological and psychiatric reports submitted about Aleksandr’s state of mental health.
The Defence also highlighted an issue which arose immediately after the sentence had been handed down, but which nobody had noticed. Krasnov said: “At the point when the Gomel Court decision had not yet legally come into force, Aleksandr was already being held in the solitary confinement cells used for death row inmates at the remand centre in the Interior Ministry buildings of the Gomel District Executive Committee. There, he was forced to wear prison clothing with an acronym printed on the shirt back that stands for “Extraordinary Form of Punishment” (ie: the death penalty). He felt that being treated like this meant that the verdict in his case had already been decided and his fate already pre-determined.”
The decision of the Criminal Bench of the Supreme Court in the matter of Grunov versus the State was then sent back to the Gomel District Court for further consideration.
Krasnov went on to argue that issues had been brought to light that meant the sentence should have been reduced. Aleksandr cooperated with detectives, showed remorse and gave himself up to the police of his own accord. He never disputed his guilt, but did request that his sentence be commuted, so that he would have the chance to reform and give some form of compensation to Natalia’s family. The victim’s family lodged papers with the court for a sum of 300 million roubles [about £4.5 million].
Despite this, the Supreme Court has today upheld the decision of the Gomel District Court to maintain the sentence of death. The sentence was handed down by the President of the Bench, Valeriy Kalinkovich, who has separately announced on several occasions that everything is now in place to abolish the death penalty in Belarus. This is despite having also found in favour of a death sentence against Pavel Seliun in 2013.
The prosecutor in charge of Aleksandr’s case was Nikolai Zhechko, who was recently in the public eye because of a high-profile case against the medical centre EkoMedServis.
Defence counsel, Sergei Krasnov, said that Aleksandr is under a huge amount of pressure, and so far does not want to make an appeal to President Lukashenko for clemency: “It was very difficult for him to hear the the sentence of death by shooting being handed down for a third time. He is now close to despair.” He added: “I’m amazed that the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Gomel District Court for further consideration, and then did not take into account the new mitigating circumstances that came to light at the Gomel Court hearings.”
Andrei Poluda of the Human Rights Campaign against the Death Penalty has been following Aleksandr’s case. He said:
“Since Belarus gained independence, the President has only pardoned one death row inmate. That’s why people condemned to death so often have no faith in this last avenue of appeal. In Aleksandr’s case, things are made even more complicated by the fact that Lukashenko has already personally made it clear to State Prosecutor Koniuk that Aleksandr does not deserve clemency, even though, when he said that, the Supreme Court had not made their first ruling. However, we have received permission from Aleksandr to lodge a case in his name with the UN Human Rights Committee.”
Just today, it was announced that the UN Human Rights Committee has received papers in the name of Aleksandr Grunov. According to section 92 of the Committee’s Rules of Procedure, UN Member States must not carry out a death sentence before the Committee has reviewed the facts of the case.