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Russia's last man on death row faces life in disease-filled prison

MOSCOW -- Rashik Khusainov was to have been executed with a single shot to the back of the head. Now he faces 25 years in one of Russia's disease-ridden prisons.

Khusainov, 38, who killed three people in a robbery, was the last man in Russia to live under the threat of execution. His sentence was commuted to a prison term when President Boris Yeltsin this month signed a decree emptying death row and in effect eliminating capital punishment.For Yeltsin, Khusainov's position as the last man on death row gave his self-declared step toward meeting international liberal standards a dramatic twist. But for Khusainov, the fanfare that greeted his removal from death row was more muted -- his wait was prolonged because the first letter of his surname is close to the end of the Russian alphabet.

A similar emotion was felt by many human rights groups, which have lobbied Russia to abolish the death penalty once and for all. They were swift to say that Russia, which executed up to 20,000 people a year in Soviet times, still had a long way to go before it meets international humanitarian standards.

"It's a big step in the right direction, but the death penalty formally still exists in Russia," Diederik Lohman, director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, said by telephone. "In order to start executing people again it would take time and effort, but it's still technically possible to go back to applying the death penalty."

Russia has to take a final step to outlaw the death penalty and live up to its promise to the Council of Europe, a 40-state human rights body that outlaws peacetime executions.

Yeltsin imposed an informal moratorium on executions in August 1996 and the Constitutional Court has ordered judges to stop sentencing people to death until defendants can be guaranteed a jury trial. So far only nine of Russia's 89 regions have a jury system because local authorities say it costs too much.

So the death sentence remains on the books and the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, must pass a law changing the criminal code to abolish it for good. It will not be easy.

Many Russians believe the best way to stop violent criminals from terrorizing the vast land is to keep the threat of execution hanging over their heads. And politicians, facing an election in just over six months, will no doubt tap into this impulse in their campaigning, as Yeltsin himself did in 1995-96 by stepping up executions.

Sergei Vitsin, deputy chairman of Russia's Presidential Pardons Commission, said resistance in the Duma was fierce. "The law has already been prepared, but it is not going to be done soon. There are people and deputies who strongly believe that the death penalty should exist," he said by telephone.

Human rights groups doubt Russia will ever find a way to persuade people that the death penalty is no deterrent.

"I think the chances of that law getting considered and passed are almost nonexistent," said Lohman. "The Duma snubbed the last moratorium draft law, they refused to even consider it. I think that's a very clear indication of how the Duma looks at the death penalty and where it stands on abolition."

Lohman said he doubted a new Duma would feel differently and it would be possible, although difficult, for a new president, to be elected in mid-2000, to resume executions.

Relatives of those on death row have no doubt celebrated the fact that their menfolk -- there are no women -- are still alive and their families' torment has ceased. But for some prisoners, a jail term is more terrifying than the prospect of a bullet in the head.

"We know the statistics, and we have carried out surveys and many of those who have got life sentences think they would rather be executed," Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov said.

Russia's prisons are notorious for overcrowding and lack of funding, although the Duma has given its initial approval for an amnesty for more than 94,000 nonviolent prisoners. Deputies approved a draft law in the first reading of three to make inroads into the prison population, which at more than a million is one of the world's highest incarceration rates.

In ordinary jails, more than 10 prisoners can be found sharing cells of 215 to 320 square feet, and inmates can expect less than 70 kopecks worth of food a day.

"Russia has to work really hard to improve the conditions in prisons and colonies including camps for life prisoners," Lohman said. "It's horrific to think that they would rather die than live."