Swiss court acquits Belarusian accused of disappearance of opposition leaders | ET REALITY


A former member of a Belarusian security services unit prosecuted for the disappearance of three prominent opponents of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko in 1999 has been acquitted by a Swiss court after judges ruled that his testimony was unreliable, according to a decision published Thursday.

The decision dealt a blow to the victims’ families and their lawyers, who saw the trial as a milestone in the effort to achieve judicial accountability on behalf of the three Belarusian opposition leaders who disappeared almost 25 years ago.

Severin Walz, a lawyer for the daughters of two of the victims, said he planned to appeal. “They are very disappointed, a little shocked by the outcome,” Walz said after the verdict.

The case came to light after former member of the security services, Yuri Harauski, now 44, arrived in Switzerland in 2018 seeking asylum, claiming that he had been the target of an assassination attempt and that his life was in danger. danger.

Harauski also admitted to being part of a special unit of the Belarusian Interior Ministry known as SOBR. He said the unit had kidnapped and killed the three men: Yuri Zakharenko, former Interior Minister; Viktor Gonchar, former deputy prime minister; and Anatoly Krasovsky, a pro-opposition businessman.

Mr. Harauski was tried on charges of enforced disappearance in connection with the disappearances.

His disappearance had helped crush resistance to Lukashenko’s increasingly authoritarian government. An investigation by the Council of Europe (the continent’s main institution governing human rights) concluded in 2004 that the disappearances had been covered up “at the highest level” by the Belarusian government.

In press interviews and in court testimony, Harauski described in detail how the eight-member SOBR unit had kidnapped the men from the streets of Minsk, the Belarusian capital, and taken them to two Interior Ministry bases, where The unit commander shot each man twice in the back.

The court said it should be assumed that the three men had been murdered and did not question Mr Harauski’s claim to have worked at SOBR. But the three-judge district court panel that heard the case concluded in a written statement released Thursday that because of discrepancies in his testimony, his involvement in the men’s disappearance could not “be considered legally proven.”

The judges suggested Harauski may have exaggerated his role in supporting his asylum claim.

The court also questioned the legal basis for charging him with the crime of forced disappearance, saying: “The accused was not part of an arrest or kidnapping squad, but rather a real squad of hitmen.”

However, attorney Walz said the judges “seemed to lack a comprehensive understanding of the crime of forced disappearance.”

Human rights groups said the court proceedings had shed light on the brutal tactics still used by Belarusian security services, including SOBR, to suppress dissent, which erupted again in 2020 after mass protests against the election results. presidential elections widely dismissed as fraudulent and in which Mr. Lukashenko declared victory.

A United Nations human rights official told the Human Rights Council in Geneva last week that around 1,500 people were imprisoned in Belarus on politically motivated charges as part of the government’s “campaign of violence and repression” against real or perceived opponents. assumptions.

“Detainees, both men and women, are subjected to torture and ill-treatment, including beatings, overcrowding, sleep deprivation, denial of access to medical care, repeated solitary confinement, and unsafe or exploitative forced labor,” said Nada Al-Nashif, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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