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By Denis Pinchuk
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Russia's Constitutional Court on Thursday effectively abolished the death penalty, extending indefinitely a 13-year-old moratorium on capital punishment.
Russia has not executed a criminal since 1996, though a myriad of contradictory legal decisions have helped stoke a heated debate about whether to return the punishment for especially barbarous crimes.
"The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation recognised that after January 1, 2010 use of the death penalty in Russia is not possible," the court, which is based in Russia's former capital St Petersburg, said in a statement.
Valery Zorkin, the head of the court, announced the decision after 17 judges deliberated for 45 minutes in the 18th Century building that used to house the Tsar's senate and synod.
"I consider that this decision means the abolition of the death penalty," said court spokeswoman Anna Malysheva.
Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer, has pushed for the abolition of the death penalty which, despite the moratorium, is still part of Russia's criminal code.
Recent polls have shown that between 65 and 74 percent of Russians favour resuming executions, carried out before the moratorium by a pistol shot to the back of the head.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a Soviet dissident and one of Russia's best-known human rights campaigners, welcomed the court verdict.
"I hope the death penalty does not return in Russia, even though the majority of the population and the majority of lawmakers support it," she told Reuters.
"In a country with such a cruel history and where human life meant so little for so long, there is nothing surprising in the fact that the majority of people support the death penalty."
Concerns about the return of the death penalty were raised because of a legal loophole under which the punishment cannot be applied until the introduction of jury trials in all regions.
On January 1, 2010, the volatile North Caucasus region of Chechnya will become Russia's last region where juries will replace traditional panels of judges, clearing the final formal obstacle to the death penalty's return.
But the Constitutional Court dismissed those concerns.
"The introduction of jurors over the entire territory of the Russian Federation does not create the possibility to apply the death penalty," it said in its statement.
Late President Boris Yeltsin in May 1996 ordered officials to move towards scrapping the death penalty and Moscow committed itself to ending capital punishment in April 1997, when it signed a protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party has used public support for restoration of the death penalty to argue against ratifying the protocol.
"I consider that unless there is consensus in society we should not ratify the protocol," Boris Gryzlov, the head of United Russia, said on his party's www.edinros.ru Web site.
Russia's close political and military ally Belarus is the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union to execute prisoners. Human rights group Amnesty International estimates that about 400 people have been executed since Belarus gained independence in 1991, including four last year.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Jon Boyle)