'Support for executions'

But politicians have warned it is too soon to formally abolish the death penalty, with public opinion still strongly in favour of state executions.

Mikhail Krotov, the president's envoy to the Constitutional Court said the State Duma "hasn't yet ratified the protocol banning capital punishment because many in Russia support the death penalty.

"This decision brings us closer to Europe and to the whole of the civilized world"

Mara Polyakova, Russian human rights lawyer

"The society needs more time to ban the death penalty. But the government structures support a ban on capital punishment," he was quoted by the AP news agency as saying.

Russia announced a moratorium on capital punishment when it joined the Council of Europe in 1996 and pledged to abolish it, but has not done so.

After the Duma failed to ratify the rights treaty in 1996, then-president Boris Yeltsin decreed a stay on executions.

Since then there have been no executions, but the punishment remains in Russia's legal code.

'Archaic measure'

Mara Polyakova, a prominent Russian human rights lawyer, said the decision brings Russia "closer to the civilized world".

The death penalty "was an archaic measure that did nothing to solve the problem of crime," she told the AFP news agency.

"This decision brings us closer to Europe and to the whole of the civilized world."

The Russian Orthodox Church also 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.

Prolonged violence in the North Caucasus region has prompted some to demand the return of the death penalty for those behind attacks, and there is also public pressure for convicted serial killers, murderers and child abusers to be executed.

But reviving capital punishment would harm already strained relations between Russia and the EU.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president, has also spoken out about the importance of the rule of law and basic human values in the country.