President Vladimir V. Putin's words were uncharacteristically strong and unequivocal--"I am against the restoration of capital punishment in Russia"--and they set off a fresh wave of controversy Tuesday over whether the country needs the death penalty.
The statement late Monday ended months of fence-sitting by the Russian president, torn between overwhelming support for the death penalty by his countrymen and overwhelming opposition to it in Western Europe.
"The state should not arrogate for itself a right which belongs only to the Almighty," Putin said after meeting with World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn. In order to retain membership in European organizations, Russia has been halfheartedly observing a moratorium on capital punishment since 1996, but the statute permitting its use remains on the books.
Russian polls show that about 80% of respondents favor the death penalty. Some judges have defied the Kremlin and continued to sentence people to death, although the sentences have not been carried out.
"For the time being, the majority of our people believe [the death penalty] should be left at least for intimidation," said Gennady N. Seleznyov, speaker of parliament's lower house, the State Duma. "What's the use of hurrying" to ban it?
Debate over capital punishment revived in Russia last month after a top general called for the execution of Chechen terrorists.
"When you look at it, it seems you'd strangle [these criminals] with your own hands," Putin said in his remarks. "But as a person who received a basic legal education, I know that a tougher penalty will not reduce crime."
It was perhaps the first time in Putin's presidency that he took a position clearly at odds with polls. He has frequently cited polls when he has taken public stands--for instance, when he reinstated the music of the Soviet anthem last winter.
But Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's most prominent human rights campaigner, said that when it comes to the death penalty, foreign policy trumps domestic policy.
"I don't think Putin is a convinced opponent of the death penalty," Kovalyov said. "But there is nothing else Russia can do. . . . The Kremlin's ultimate task in international relations is to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States." And for that, it must remain a member of European organizations.
Russia belongs to the Council of Europe, which requires that the death penalty not be imposed. Membership in the European Union, to which Russia aspires, requires membership in the Council of Europe.
Putin's position on the death penalty had been unclear in part because last year he stopped issuing presidential pardons. The practice was begun in 1996 by his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, who used pardons to commute death sentences.
Early in his administration, Yeltsin established a presidential clemency commission as a safety valve in a justice system acknowledged as flawed and cruel. However, last year Putin for the most part stopped signing clemency petitions, in an apparent effort to appease the Justice Ministry, which administers prisons and disliked the interference.
In 2000, Putin approved more than 12,000 clemency requests. But in the last few months of the year, he issued only eight, and none this year, according to Anatoly Pristavkin, chairman of the clemency panel.
Critics say that if Russia had a fair and consistent justice system, there would be no reason to have a clemency commission. Prosecutors rely less on investigative evidence to prove their case than on suspects' confessions--which inmates say frequently are beaten out of them. Judges rarely rule against prosecutors in criminal cases, and jail terms tend to be long.
Putin has made judicial reform a top priority, but some of the proposed changes have been resisted by the Justice Ministry and other judicial bodies.
Pavel Krasheninnikov, chairman of the Duma's legislation committee, said parliament will reconsider whether to ban the death penalty in the fall.