Jun 5, 2018 - Jul 5, 2018

Abolition of the Death Penalty in Romanian Principalities in the 19th Century

National Archives of Romania

In 1865, Romania was the first country in modern European history to abolish the death penalty, followed by Portugal in 1867 and the Netherlands in 1870. Our micro-exhibition presents three 19th century milestones in the abolition of capital punishment in Romanian Principalities reflected in archival documents

The Organic Regulation of Wallachia

The treaty of Adrianople in 1829 marked the end of the Russian-Ottoman war and it established that the two Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (nowadays Southern, respectively Eastern Romania) would become Russian protectorates.
It was in this context that a proto-constitution for the Principality of Wallachia was imposed by the Russian authorities and their representative, General Pavel Kiseleff, in 1831. Entitled Regulamentul Organic (eng. Organic Regulation), it abolished the death penalty through article 298.

Historians still debate about the influence of the local boyars and that of Kiseleff through modern Beccarian principles initiated in the Russian tradition by Elizabeth Petrovna. Nevertheless, the provision did not last too long, as on 11 March 1832, the same general informed the Assembly about the restoration of the death penalty. It was followed by a general reformation of the system of punishments and the penitentiary system that ultimately determined the decrease of criminality.

His discourse on 10 January 1834, addressed to the Assembly before leaving Wallachia, doubled by other sources, also confirms a de facto abolition of the death penalty from July 1831 to January 1834. After that, it was rarely used until the events of 1848.

Proclamation of Islaz

The events in 1848 France had a large influence throughout Europe and they reached Wallachia as well. Here, many heads of the revolution were young intellectuals living or studying in Paris, who supported a deep social and political reform. On 9 June 1848, in front of an enthusiastic crowd, a proclamation was read in Islaz, a small Danube port. The 19th point of the proclamation decreed the complete abolition of capital punishment. That went even further than the French revolutionaries, who asked its abolition for political crimes only. Explaining it into detail, the revolutionaries stated that The Romanian people does not know the existence of capital punishment, but because often tribunals and old style judges issued capital sentences that were not put into practice, the people decreed the complete abolition of capital punishment in practice and in sentencing. Decree no. 7/ 14 June 1848 of the Provisional Government provided for the abolition of capital punishment. It was valid only until 13 September 1848, when ottoman troops entered Bucharest and defeated the revolutionaries, putting an end to their short democratic experiment. It has to be mentioned that also in Moldavia, although the revolutionaries did not take power, their program asked for the abolition of capital punishment: 17. The abolition of capital punishment and torture - The times we live in make any other comments useless.

Penal Code of 1865

In 1859, Wallachia and Moldavia formed a new state (Romania). A series of reforms was initiated by the head of the new state, Alexandru Ioan Cuza, in the first half of the 1860's, like the secularization of monastic assets, the agrarian and electoral reform, the abolition of slavery etc. Among them, the penal reform introduced a coherent and modern penal code that, surprisingly for those times, abolished the death penalty.

Vasile Boerescu, the official rapporteur on the Penal Code declared in front of the General Assembly on 11 march 1864, during the debates:

"The commission abolished capital punishment from our laws. This barbarian punishment that is not fit for its role of example and guidance that a punishment should offer, that is against the rights and the power of a society is part of our laws without being applied for many years already. Thus, its abolition cannot cause the slightest perturbation as it is claimed in some countries, and furthermore it won't even generate a debate, because its de facto abolition is supported by the general consent, through the power of the public opinion, through the mild and humanitarian habits of our people. Hence, it is time for de jure abolition of this punishment that actually disappeared years ago. While other more civilized countries still doubt and hesitate to abolish this punishment, I am proud to say that the Romanians are the first that have abolished it in practice and will be the first to abolish it in their laws. Nevertheless, there are less crimes and these crimes are less cruelly committed in our country than in other civilized countries where this punishment still exists."

The Penal Code was promulgated and published on 30 October 1864 but it entered into force on 1 May 1865; the highest punishment mentioned was hard labour for life (art. 7). In 1865, Romania was the first country in modern European history to abolish the death penalty, followed by Portugal in 1867 and the Netherlands in 1870.

The Constitution in 1 July 1866 explicitly provided that capital punishment could not be reinstated (art. 18). With the exception of a few military offences provided by the Military Code and put into practice during the World War I, capital punishment was abolished until 1938.

National Archives of Romania
Credits: Story

Curator: Radu Stancu

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