"If you pass a harsh sentence, I am sure that no one in the world will ever again report crimes committed by a state power," said Yury Garavsky as part of the closing remarks of a high-profile trial taking place in the canton of St. Gallen in Switzerland. The verdict is expected on September 28.
The 45-year-old fled to Switzerland from Belarus five years ago and admitted to being part of a "death squad" that was involved in the kidnapping of political opponents of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in 1999.
Swiss prosecutors have examined Garavsky's testimony on the basis of "universal jurisdiction," which, in the case of certain grave crimes against humanity, allows for the application of national law even if the crime was committed elsewhere. Garavsky is also on trial for the alleged offense of enforced disappearance. It is the first time a person involved in kidnapping opponents of Lukashenko has gone on trial.
What happened in Belarus in 1999?
The second presidential elections in independent Belarus were supposed to occur in 1999. However, Lukashenko managed to postpone them to 2001 after holding a referendum in 1996 on proposed constitutional amendments that would significantly expand the powers of his office and remove the limit to terms. The results were not supposed to be binding, but despite objections by the constitutional court, which did not recognize them, Lukashenko could push through the amendments.
The opposition, which also included many former companions of the president, accused him of launching a "constitutional coup" and tried to organize elections to remove him from power legally. Among them were the former head of the Central Election Committee, Viktar Hanchar, and a former interior minister, General Yuri Zakharanka, who both disappeared without a trace in 1999.
Zakharanka had been fired one year after becoming interior minister in 1994. He had criticized the president's decisions and refused to carry out orders that he considered illegitimate. He was trying to form an officers' association of former and acting security officials before disappearing in May 1999.
Hanchar and a friend of his, a businessman called Anatoly Krasovsky, disappeared in September of the same year. It was unclear what had happened to them for a long time, but in 2001, independent media outlets published documents pointing to the possible involvement of the commander of the Belarusian Special Rapid Reaction Unit (SOBR), Dmitry Pavlichenko. Other senior Belarusian officials were also allegedly involved.
Two investigators for the Prosecutor General's Office of Belarus later had to flee to the US. Christos Pourgourides, the special rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), came to the same conclusion as them. The Belarusian authorities did not respond to his inquiries.
DW interview paves way for trial
In 2019, 20 years later, Garavsky contacted DW and spoke at length about his involvement in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Lukashenko's main opponents. He said that Pavlichenko's SOBR unit had kidnapped Zakharenko and shot him dead in a nearby wood. He explained that the body had been burned in a crematorium on the outskirts of Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Meanwhile, Hanchar and Krasovsky had been kidnapped near a public bathhouse and shot dead in a forest. Their bodies had been hidden in a grave that had been dug previously.
This DW interview, published in December 2019, formed the basis of the case brought by Trial International, a human rights NGO that aims to ensure crimes do not go unpunished and victims see justice. "We saw an opportunity to file a complaint when we understood that he was indeed in St. Gallen, Switzerland," Trial International legal adviser Benoit Meystre told DW.
Three complaints filed
Further material was collected, and the relatives of the disappeared politicians were also contacted. In the end, three complaints were filed: one by the former interior minister's daughter, Elena Zakharenko, one by Krasovsky's daughter, Valerya Krasovskaya, and the last by Trial International and its partners, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Belarusian human rights organization Vyazna (which means spring in English).
It took a year before the Swiss prosecutors pressed charges against Garavsky, who finally went on trial earlier this month. He has admitted to being involved in the kidnappings of Lukashenko's opponents but not in their murder.
When the judge said that he had found many inconsistencies in the suspect's statements to immigration authorities, as well as during the prosecution's questioning and the trial itself, Garavsky argued that this was because of "inadequate translation" from Russian to German.
In the end, the prosecutor demanded a three-year prison sentence with two years suspended. Garavsky's lawyer argued that he should be acquitted because Swiss law does not apply to the defendant in this case.
"Article 185bis of the Swiss Criminal Code explicitly refers to the fact that a criminal who makes people disappear acts on behalf of a state or at least with its approval," Leo-Phillip Menzel, the spokesman for the St. Gallen prosecutor's office, told DW.
"Enforced disappearance is a crime of state. It's the state that orders the crime," said Meystre.
For Elena Zakharenko, "the sentence is less important than establishing who was behind the case and who is responsible for the crimes in my homeland." She told DW that the trial's most important function was to document what had happened in 1999 so that it could become the basis for future trials not only against the perpetrators of crimes but also against those who commission them.
"This is about my father. He would be very proud if his death were not in vain."
This article was originally published in Russian.