The execution of two alleged Minsk subway bombers in mid-March in Belarus has brought an angry outcry, particularly from the European Union and Amnesty International. Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka has stated that while he sympathizes with the victims’ families, the evidence provided against the two perpetrators was overwhelming. He had no choice but to order their immediate execution, he said.
Why have these deaths brought such a response? Was the Belarusian regime not simply defending itself against further terrorist attacks?
That is certainly the perspective at least of Russian analyst Yulia Latynina, who writes in The Moscow Times (21 March) that the Belarusian security services responded to the explosion at the busy Kastrichnitskaya [October] metro station in Minsk on 11 April 2011, which killed 15 people an injured over 300 others, ‘like a well-oiled and perfectly tuned machine’ and—as if one well-worn cliché was insufficient—’moved heaven and earth’ to ascertain the culprit. She points out also that they interrogated 854 witnesses, looked through 84,000 mobile phone accounts, and carried out 509 searches.
International leaders and human rights organisations appealed to Belarusia's president not to execute Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavaliou. Following their death, several governments announced new sanctions against the Belarusian regime (Photo: Free Belarus From Death Penalty web site).
Fingerprint evidence suggested that one of the accused was in the vicinity of the explosion site. When Judge Aliaksandr Fedortsou announced the verdict, which he did in full, it ran to 114 pages. Thus the authorities could hardly be accused of a lack of thoroughness.
Internal and international criticism
And yet, as indicated inter alia by the reliable surveys of the National Institute for Social-Economic and Political Research, over 60% of Belarusian residents doubt the validity of the verdict (cited by charter97.org, 18 March), a death sentence first announced last November against two men born in 1986 from Vitsebsk: Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavaliou (because of the similarity of their surnames we will refer them hereafter as Dzmitry and Uladizislau). The chair of the UN Human Rights Committee, Zonke Zanele Majodina, declared that ‘Belarus has committed a grave breach of its legal obligations by executing Mr. [Uladzislau] Kovalev,’ Appeals not to implement the death sentence arrived from Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.
Without doubt some of the concern from the Europeans pertained to the practice of the death penalty and it has been pointed out repeatedly in recent days that Belarus is the only country in Europe to retain it. That is a separate question, however, and does not detract from the fact that many observers and analysts, like most Belarusians, believe that much about the investigation and trial of the two men was flawed and suspicious, not least because of the events timing in the midst of a bitter political crisis that followed the presidential elections of December 2010, which resulted in over 700 arrests in Independence Square and the incarceration of seven of the nine presidential candidates, two of which remain in jails: Mikalay Statkevich and Andrei Sannikau.
But returning to 11 April 2011, the explosion occurred around 6pm at the busiest metro station in Minsk. The bomb was a crude one of nails and ball-bearings and evidently was contained in a bag left on a bench on the main platform. Within less than two hours, the president himself appeared at the disaster site accompanied by his six-year old son Mikalay (better known as Kolya). While Lukashenka frequently brings his son to state occasions and on foreign trips, many questioned the decision to bring the young boy to the metro station. What if there had been a second bomb? Recently in an interview with the Russia Today network that was also run by Belarus 1 TV station, the president stated that this was his personal decision and ‘his cross’ (Belapan, 22 March). It would have been unusual, however, if more cynical critics did not reach a different conclusion, namely that he knew full well that there would not be a second bomb.
‘Most Belarusians believe the investigation and trial of the two men was flawed and suspicious, not least because of the events timing in the midst of a bitter political crisis that followed the presidential elections of December 2010, which resulted in over 700 arrests in Independence Square and the incarceration of seven of the nine presidential candidates’.
When the trial began in September 2011, the demeanor of the two accused, both of which worked at a factory providing spare parts for tractors, was quite different: Dzmitry was subdued and listless; Uladzislau more defiant and supported by family members, most notably his mother. He retracted his guilty plea, which he claimed had been given under duress from the militia. Dzmitry had confessed to the bombing, but refused to make any statement in court. He was also accused of being the perpetrator of the hitherto unsolved terrorist bomb on 3 July 2008 in Minsk, an occasion at which Lukashenka was present to celebrate the national holiday; as well as a bomb attack in Vitsebsk in September 2005. In both these earlier attacks, there were no deaths, but total injuries exceeded 100. In each case, the prosecution argued, Uladzislau was the accomplice. But there were no obvious motives for the crimes, and Russia’s FSB, which also conducted an analysis of the crime scene, noted that a man shown on footage of security cameras could not be identified as Dzmitry (RFE/RL, 30 Nov).
Aleh Hruzdzilovich, a correspondent for the RFE/RL Belarusian Service, who has written a book about the trial, attended every session in the assembly hall of the Palace of Justice. He commented that the setting was more appropriate for concerts than trials. An iron cage, to which the defendants were brought, stood on the stage. Those in the hall were deprived of Internet connections and the judge expressly banned cameras. Yet state media outlets could have balcony seats with Wi-Fi access and the sentencing was shown on state television, despite the ban. Hruzdzilovich has serious doubts whether the sentence to Uladzislau was merited. On 30 November, the two men received death sentences.
The foundations of a shaky sentence
Before the sentences could be carried out, Uladzislau’s mother, Lubou Kavaliova mounted a campaign to save the life of her son. Human rights activists, journalists, and well-known European politicians were responsive, not necessarily because they considered Uladzislau innocent, but because they were not convinced of his guilt (charter97.org, 18 March).
Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavaliou at their trial. The trial was conducted not in the court building but in the Palace of Justice, a place that is clearly suited for performances and concerts, not for judicial proceedings (photo: belsat.eu)
He had heard sounds from Dzmitry’s cell that indicated his friend was being severely beaten, which raised doubts about the confession to the crime (Financial Times, 19 March). Other reports suggest that both men were beaten (amnesty.org, 19 March). Yet there are many other imponderables in this case.
First, the legendary efficiency of the security services had not been in evidence after the previous bombings of 2005 and 2008, despite determined efforts. If Dzmitry and Uladzislau were guilty of those offenses, they would have been teenagers at the time of the Vitsebsk event. How could the investigators solve one case in less than 48 hours, but fail to uncover the perpetrators of others six and three years earlier? The likelihood was that Dzmitry had confessed under duress. There is a significant difference also in an attempt to kill the president (which should obviously be condemned) and what was described as an effort to kill as many people as possible — according to Latynina ‘the maniac detonated the bombs for fun’ (Moscow Times, 21 March)
‘The Stalinist-style show trial presented no physical evidence that definitively links the two perpetrators to the crime and no motives for the bombing. Belarus is not a terrorist site. It has a homogenous population and it has not taken part in wars in the Caucasus, Iran, or Afghanistan. …. [The] terrorist attack was a convenient occasion for a crackdown.’
Second, those who observed photographs of the basement suite have noted it was inconceivable that this was the reported ‘bomb factory.’ There was no space for the assemblage of such devices and equipment. Third, a few days after the explosion, a report from the Chinese agency reported that five people had been arrested and three had already confessed (Xinhua, 15 April). There was no explanation of who the third person might be. By 20 April, several more opponents of Lukashenka were arrested, most of which were from Vitsebsk, including Volha Karach, editor of the opposition newspaper Nash Dom. Lukashenka ordered the KGB to detain and question, and not to pay attention to the ‘wails and groans of pathetic Westerners’. Thus the implication was clear: the terrorist attack was linked to the opposition (and possibly the West) and the security forces should start a crackdown.
Fourth, and moving ahead to March 2012, despite the various appeals, the sentences were carried out rapidly with shots to the back of the head, sometime between 11 and 16 March. The bodies were disposed of in unknown graves and all evidence gathered for the trial destroyed. There can be no future inquiries into this case. On 17 March, the executions were reported on state television. On this same day Lubou Kavaliova received an official letter informing her of Uladzislau’s execution. Dzmitry’s death was confirmed by the television announcement. There has been no explanation for the haste. Earlier executions have taken place more than two years after the judge gave the verdict of the death penalty.
Lastly, the Stalinist-style show trial presented no physical evidence that definitively links the two perpetrators to the crime and no motives for the bombing. Belarus is not a terrorist site. It has a homogenous population and it has not taken part in wars in the Caucasus, Iran, or Afghanistan. After the explosion of April 2011, the authorities policed the Internet, targeting people who expressed support for the conspiracy theory implicating either Lukashenka, or the security services, or both. Arrests of known activists continued for most of that year. Thus the terrorist attack was a convenient occasion for a crackdown.
We may never know whether Dzmitry and Uladzislau were innocent or guilty. But their hasty executions were warranted neither by the evidence provided publicly nor from a humanitarian perspective. Lukashenka informed Russia television viewers that he speaks to God every day. One can only wonder what he says to Him.