Russia's Constitutional Court effectively outlawed the death penalty Thursday, saying a moratorium on capital punishment should remain in force until the nation fully bans executions.
Constitutional Court chief Valery Zorkin said Russia must extend the moratorium on executions until it ratifies a European convention banning the death penalty.
Russia announced a moratorium on capital punishment when it joined the Council of Europe in 1996. It pledged to completely abolish it, but the Kremlin-controlled parliament has been reluctant to do so due to public support for the death penalty.
Persistent violence in the North Caucasus region has prompted some to demand the death penalty for those involved in terrorism, and there is also public pressure for convicted serial killers, murderers and child abusers to be executed.
But reviving capital punishment would harm relations with the EU and undermine Kremlin claims that Russia is no less modern than European countries. President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken out about the importance of the rule of law and basic human values.
"The State Duma hasn't yet ratified the protocol banning capital punishment because many in Russia support the death penalty," said Mikhail Krotov, Medvedev's envoy to the Constitutional Court. "The society needs more time to ban the death penalty. But the government structures support a ban on capital punishment."
State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov refused to say Thursday when the lower house could move to ratify the protocol. "We mustn't take up the ratification until we have a public consensus," he told reporters.
But another senior lawmaker, Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin-connected head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, spoke strongly in support of a swift ratification.
"The country's leadership, all branches of government, must be ready to show a political will," Margelov said, according to RIA Novosti news agency. "Modernization can't be conducted without that."
Margelov said outlawing death penalty was an important part of Russia's efforts to integrate more closely into Europe.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Thursday that France "hails the decision" of the court.
"France, like the European Union, underscored its long opposition to the death penalty everywhere in the world and whatever the circumstances," he said. "We now encourage Russia to proceed with the complete abolition of the death penalty."
A moratorium on the death penalty imposed in 1999 was to lose its legal foundation in January, when jury trials will be introduced in Chechnya. The moratorium had specified that courts must not hand out death sentences until jury trials were available in all of Russia's provinces. Chechnya is the only province where they have not been introduced.
The court specifically said Thursday that the introduction of jury trials in all regions of Russia "doesn't create conditions for using the death penalty."
Chechnya's Moscow-backed regional President Ramzan Kadyrov, whose security forces have long been blamed by rights groups for abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings, spoke in support of the court's ruling.
"Life in prison in a colony in the Far North, in a concrete cell, without a chance to meet relatives, without a chance to write or receive letters will make a convict dream about a quick death," Kadyrov said, according to his administration's Web site.
The Russian Orthodox Church welcomed the ruling. "Our society is strong enough to outlaw the death penalty while continuing to strongly combat crime," Father Vsevolod Chaplin said, according to RIA Novosti.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.