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Grief On All Sides, As Terror Trial Begins In Minsk Subway Bombing

WATCH: Before the trial, Liubou Kavalyova, the mother of Uladzislau Kavalyou, said her requests to meet with her son in detention have been rejected. (Video by RFE/RL's Belarus Service)


MINSK -- The trial has begun in the case of the two Belarusian men accused of masterminding an April bombing attack in a Minsk subway station that killed 15 people and wounded 200.

The men -- Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavalyou, both 25 -- were ushered into a caged section of the courtroom at Minsk's House of Justice court for the first day of the trial on September 15. The court reconvened the next day.

Alyaksandr Fedortsov, the first deputy chairman of the Belarusian Supreme Court, is presiding over the trial, which may end with death penalties for both men if found guilty on terrorism charges.

Kanavalau pleaded guilty to carrying out the April metro bombing as well as a 2008 attack on a concert in Minsk. Kavalyou admitted failing to report preparations for that earlier attack.

The trial is open to the public, with approximately 100 victims' relatives and blast survivors in attendance. Fedortsov later asked photographers and video journalists to leave the courtroom after complaints from one of the victims.

Dzmitry Kanavalau
On the eve of the trial, Vasil Kaptsiukh, an Olympic bronze medalist whose 21-year-old son, Raman, was killed in the blast, said he was dreading the court procedure.

"It's very difficult for me to even think about it. I don't even know how I'll manage to go to the court," Kaptsiukh said. "I'm afraid, God forbid, that I'll become cruel. Because cruelty begets cruelty. Anything I say there will be only about kindness. I don't want to be cruel, even when it comes to a murderer. That's how I feel. Even though this has been very hard for me."

The bomb, which was triggered as a subway car pulled into a crowded station during evening rush hour on April 11, sent nails and sharp objects flying through the platform.

Rehabilitation And Compensation

Many of the survivors have faced long rehabilitation periods and say the compensation given to them by the state has been far from sufficient, particularly at a time of increasing economic hardship in Belarus. The Belarusian currency plunged nearly 40 percent on September 14 after the government let the currency trade freely in what was effectively the second devaluation of the year.

People with serious injuries were allotted up to 3.5 million Belarusian rubles, around $400 at today's exchange rate.

Uladzislau Kavalyou (rear)
Veronika Pyasetski, the sister of 26-year-old Jaraslau Pyasetski, who lost both of his legs and sustained serious burns in the blast, says even with the devaluation the family has enough -- but just barely.

"Yaraslau is in Aksakaushchyna in rehabilitation, but he's already set to come home on the weekend," she says. "I have to say, he's holding up, he's doing great. According to the current exchange rate [the compensation we've received] is enough, but if the rate goes up again then we're going to have to go back and ask for more help.

"But we've applied for help from the Red Cross, so I hope we'll be able to do what we need. As far as I know, the factory that makes prosthetics here is ordering German components but is manufacturing and fitting them here."

But the grief and anxiety that has racked survivors and family members has its counterpoint in the suffering endured by the relatives of the accused.

The two men, an electrician and a mechanic from the city of Vitebsk, were arrested shortly after the blast. Investigators and prosecutors have sought to portray the defendants, who became friends in school, as explosives enthusiasts who bonded over a comment antipathy toward humankind. One of the prosecutors on the opening day of the trial said that Kanavalau had specifically chosen the central Oktyabrskaya station in order "to kill as many people as possible."

Security Crackdown

Many Belarusian political observers believe the men have no connection to the bombing, and that there is little reason to expect a fair trial.

Valery Kostka, a former lieutenant colonel with the Belarusian KGB, was one of hundreds of people whose apartments were arbitrarily searched in the massive police crackdown that followed postelection antigovernment protests in December. Kostka says he had no connection to the protests but still saw his computer equipment seized and has yet to have it returned, despite appealing to the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Supreme Court.

Now, he says, he is watching the terror trial with a skeptical eye.

"I saw how this system works," Kostka says. "It works according to political orders. If there's an order [to arrest someone], that means they'll be arrested. The way it is here, whatever [the authorities] say, the courts will make it so. So to hope that this will be a fair trial, that they will carefully examine all the facts and the evidence both 'for' and 'against' in order to prove the innocence or guilt of the defendants -- I'm very doubtful this will happen."

Some observers have suggested that the blast may have been planned by the government of autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as a pretext for launching a security crackdown. Security operations in Belarus have tightened steadily since antigovernment protests following presidential elections in December.

Liubou Kavalyova, the mother of Uladzislau Kavalyou, who has been charged as an accessory to terrorism, said she's had only limited access to her son and that his letters appear cool and withdrawn, as though written under observation.
A victim of the subway bombing is assisted by medical personnel.
Although the trial was open to the public, seating was limited, meaning people were allowed in on a first-come, first-serve basis, not by merit of personal connection to the trial. Kavalyova, who has been able to see her son only a single time since his arrest, said she was devastated to think she might not be able to attend the trial.

"I was overjoyed when they said that the trial would be open. It gave me a feeling of hope, of course," Kavalyova said. "But then I heard how it was in fact being done. And when Charter 77 posted information on who the judges would be -- well, it's just horrifying."

No Motives Offered

The two suspects have also been charged with several previous attacks in Minsk and in the city of Vitebsk, which injured more than 100 people but caused no deaths. The authorities have never given any clear motivations for the suspects to carry out any of the bombings, though Lukashenka said at the time of the April attack it was an attempt to destabilize the country.

The family of Kanavalau, the chief suspect in the case, has largely secluded itself from the press, as well as from the family of his co-defendant. Kavalyova said she had attempted to approach Kanavalau's mother.

"I went to see his mother at her place of work. We were able to speak for just a moment," Kavalyova said. "She told me that she hadn't received any letters from her son, that she hadn't heard anything from him. She wouldn't say any more than that, because her husband had forbidden her to speak to anyone."

The trial comes at a time when Belarus is under increased scrutiny by both the United States and the European Union for its human rights record. Several weeks ago, Lukashenka pledged to release the rest of the political prisoners jailed in the wake of the postelection protests.

That release continues, with a fresh group of 11 activists released from jail after being pardoned on September 14. But the possibility of two fresh death-penalty sentences in Belarus -- the only country in Europe that continues to actively employ the death sentence -- would be certain to put any detente on ice for the foreseeable future.

written by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service
A general view of the court session in Minsk, with the defendants in the cage in the upper left.

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