1997: The last execution in Ukraine

The last execution in Ukraine apparently took place on this date in 1997 — and bizarrely, nobody even seems sure of exactly who enjoyed this unwelcome distinction.

This was post-Soviet Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma, a man in no way renowned for his excessive regard for human dignity.

But Kuchma was keen on integrating with Europe, and that meant appeasing western Europe’s human rights sensibilities.

Ukraine joined the Council of Europe in 1995, a move that required it to abolish the death penalty. But executions — by means of the old Soviet method, a single gunshot to the back of the head — were ragingly popular during a decade of economic collapse and spiraling crime.

According to When the State No Longer Kills, which has an entire chapter devoted to the Ukrainian abolition experience, Ukraine’s annual count of reported murders shot up from 2,016 in 1988 to 4,896 by 1996, with 4,000-plus per annum every year from 1993 on.

“The country’s crime rate does not allow for cancelling the death penalty,” Ukraine’s Parliamentary chair told COE observers in November 1996.

He was in for a surprise.

To Europe’s chagrin, some 167 people were indeed put to death in 1996 alone. The Council Of Europe pointedly threatened sanctions against the Ukrainian delegation in January 1997 … and Kiev chickened out.

Its last executions were thirteen conducted in the first 70 days of 1997 — executions which were not announced publicly beforehand or even afterwards, and only wrung as admissions out of the government months afterward when the prisoners’ respective contacts realized they hadn’t heard from them in a suspiciously long period of time. Between this up-front secrecy and Ukraine’s practice of dumping its executed bodies in unmarked graves, nobody ever seems to have been able to document who exactly died when, and who really was last. (We assume the incriminating paper does exist somewhere in the bowels of the bureaucracy.)

By the same token, there was no public indication when the sun came up on March 12 that anything had changed. Ukraine kept information about its death row prisoners close to the vest; the Council of Europe continued to press it for a moratorium until very late in 1997, when Kiev announced that it had in fact been observing a de facto moratorium since March 11. I guess we have no choice but to take their word for it.

Just like that, this impossible dream had been accomplished.

Two years later, the country’s high court barred the death penalty, followed quickly by parliamentary action to remove it from the statutes full stop.

The nameless dead man or woman of this date is actually not only the last executed in Ukraine, but the last in the entire 47 countries of the Council of Europe — a zone that still excludes Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus, which as of writing is the last redoubt of capital punishment in Europe.

On this day..