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Analysis: Belarusian Sports Minister Banned From Entering Greece Over Disappearances

Last week, Greek authorities banned Belarusian Sports Minister Yury Sivakou, who is due to lead Belarus's delegation to the Summer Olympic Games from 11-29 August, from entering Greece. The ban was agreed to by all EU members and is based on Sivakou's alleged involvement in the disappearance of three opposition politicians and a journalist in Minsk. The current Dutch EU Presidency said on 6 August that Sivakou's presence in Athens would be "completely inappropriate." The ban is linked to a grim story of the disappearances of opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukasehnka's regime in Belarus.

In a December 2003 report, Cypriot lawmaker Christos Pourgourides, a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur on high-profile disappearances in Belarus, suggested that former Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman (now prosecutor-general); Sivakou, a former interior minister; and Interior Ministry officer Dzmitry Paulichenka might have been involved in arranging the disappearance of Yury Zakharanka (7 May 1999), Viktar Hanchar, Anatol Krasouski (16 December 1999), and journalist Dzmitry Zavadski (7 July 2000).

"The interviews I conducted in Minsk [in November 2003] have led me to believe that steps were taken at the highest level of the state actively to cover up the true background of the disappearances, and to suspect that senior officials of the state may themselves be involved in these disappearances," Pourgourides wrote in his report. Pourgourides urged member states of the Council of Europe to apply "maximum political pressure" on the Belarusian leadership, including "sanctions," to force a credible independent investigation of the disappearances and the alleged involvement of high-ranking officials in them.

"I don't know this man, I don't want to know him, I have no stance whatsoever on his report, I haven't read his report," Lukashenka said at a news conference in July, while answering a question about Pourgourides. "It's time to put this long play [the case of high-profile disappearances in Belarus] somewhere in a chest." Greece's Olympic ban on Sivakou has strongly reminded Lukashenka who Pourgourides is and, possibly, signaled to the Belarusian president that Europe does not want to forget the disappearances in Belarus.

The first public allegations as to what may have actually happened to Zakharanka and Hanchar, Lukashenka's political associates in 1994-95 and opponents in subsequent years, were made in mid-2001, in the run-up to the 2001 presidential election in Belarus. Dzmitry Petrushkevich and Aleh Sluchak, two investigators from Belarus's Prosecutor-General's Office who defected to the West, accused then Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman and then Interior Minister Yury Sivakou of forming a "special unit of rapid reaction" (SOBR) under command of Dzmitry Paulichenka "to fulfill any orders, including killings." According to Petrushkevich and Sluchak, the SOBR worked out a pattern of "perfect murder" by killing some 30 major criminals of the Belarusian underworld. The two investigators charged that this "death squad" also killed Zakharanka, Hanchar, and Krasouski in 1999 and Zavadski in 2000.

Petrushkevich's and Sluchak's charges were confirmed in August 2001 by Aleh Alkayeu, who had been in charge of the unit executing the death penalty in the SIZO-1 prison in Minsk. According to Alkayeu, Zakharanka, Hanchar, and Krasouski were killed by Paulichenka's "death squad" with the special pistol that was used for executions in the death-row prison. Alkayeu confirmed that, following orders from Sivakou, he gave the weapon on two occasions to people from the Interior Ministry -- on 30 April 1999 (the pistol was returned on 14 May, while Zakharanka disappeared on 7 May), and on 16 September (the pistol was returned on 18 September, while Hanchar and Krasouski disappeared on 16 September in the evening). According to Alkayeu, Paulichenka and his people used the execution pistol as a psychological prop, in order to impart a ritual of execution to killings.

Leaning on the revelations of Alkayeu, findings of independent journalists and families of the disappeared, as well as on interviews with officials in Minsk, Pourgourides was able to present in his report a picture of the official cover-up of the real reasons behind the disappearances of Zakharanka, Hanchar, Krasouski, and Zavadski. According to Pourgourides, former Prosecutor-General Aleh Bazhelka and former KGB chief Uladzimir Matskevich discovered the role of Paulichenka's "death squad" in the high-profile disappearances in Belarus. Following an arrest warrant from Bazhelka and Matskevich, Paulichenka was arrested on 22 November 2001. But then matters took a dramatic turn.

In a surprising security shake-up on 27 November 2001, Lukashenka fired Sheyman, Matskevich, and Bazhelka. Sheyman was replaced with Foreign Minister Ural Latypau, while Matskevich's position was filled by Leanid Yeryn. The position of prosecutor-general remained vacant for two days, after which Lukashenka appointed Sheyman to assume Bazhelka's job. Paulichenka was released at approximately the same time. In January 2003, the criminal cases regarding the disappearances of Zakharanka, Hanchar, and Krasouski were closed. In 2002, two of Zavadski's kidnappers -- members of an elite unit of the Belarusian Interior Ministry -- were sentenced to life in prison. The trial was held behind closed doors, and the court reportedly did not inquire about what happened to Zavadski after he was kidnapped.

Pourgourides' conclusions, as well as those of opponents of Lukashenka in Belarus, are that Paulichenka's release and the Belarusian security shake-up in November 2001 were prompted by the fact that investigators from the KGB and the Prosecutor-General's Office discovered that Zakharanka, Hanchar, Krasouski, and, possibly, Zavadski, were killed by Paulichenka's group, following orders from Sheyman and Sivakou. What is more, Bazhelka and Matskevich were reportedly close to finding the bodies of the slain politicians. Now, however, Bazhelka and Matskevich remain silent. Lukashenka reportedly paid for Matskevich's silence in 2001 by financing his treatment abroad and appointing him Belarus's ambassador to Yugoslavia.

Following the Pourgourides report, PACE adopted a strongly worded resolution on 28 April calling on Council of Europe member states to apply a "maximum of political pressure," including sanctions, on the government of Belarusian President Lukashenka until it launches a credible, independent investigation of the alleged involvement of high-ranking Belarusian officials in the disappearances of opposition politicians Zakharanka, Hanchar, and Krasouski as well as journalist Zavadski. The resolution says such an investigation needs to be launched following the resignation of Prosecutor-General Sheyman. The resolution also recommends that the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers consider suspending the participation of Belarus in various Council of Europe agreements and activities, as well as any contacts between the council and the Belarusian government on a political level, until sufficient progress has been made in the suggested investigation.

The current ban on Sivakou's travel to Greece seems to be one of the postulated "sanctions" against the Lukashenka regime regarding the high-profile disappearances. It remains to be seen whether some other punitive measures against the Belarusian regime on the part of the European community may follow. However, irrespective of what Europe may do with regard to Lukashenka, the disappearances in Belarus -- as the Gongadze case in Ukraine -- indicate what appears to be an insurmountable psychological barrier in establishing closer relations between the ruling regime and its opponents. One side does everything possible to cover up or postpone revealing the grisly story, while the other demands that the truth be disclosed without any reservations. Nobody has so far come up with any idea what to do to overcome this hurdle and bring the two warring sides closer together in order to make them cooperate on issues of mutual interest.

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