Opposition groups in Belarus have alleged for several years that prominent dissidents who disappeared without trace were murdered by government killers. But in the absence of hard evidence the charges remained in the realm of rumor and speculation. Yesterday the allegations received fresh impetus both in Belarus and the United States. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky has the details.
Prague, 18 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In Minsk, one of the candidates in September's Belarusian presidential election, Vladimir Honcharyk, said yesterday that he has documents pointing to the involvement of Belarusian officials in the killings of some opposition figures. And in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Hunter said that two Belarusian investigators, who last month fled to the United States and have been given asylum there, have revealed what the State Department said was "credible" evidence of a government death squad.
In response today, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said he thought the United States should "mind its own business" about allegations that his regime is running a death squad. Lukashenka told reporters the charges were a provocation meant to undermine him ahead of the 9 September presidential election.
The Belarus government had earlier denied the allegations, also citing the coming election as a reason for their circulation. The assistant to the prosecutor-general, Aleksej Taranov, said, "These are pre-election provocations which are aimed at compromising the current president of Belarus, and before the elections Belarus will see more than one similar action."
Presidential candidate Honcharyk said yesterday that documents that he said had been leaked to him by government officials suggested that a special police unit controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (SOBR) had been involved in the killings of opposition figures. He said that a SOBR commander called Pavlyuchenko was involved in the killings of former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenko, who disappeared on 7 May 1999, and former Central Election Commission Chairman Victor Honchar, as well as his colleague, Yuri Krasovsky, who vanished on 16 September of the same year.
"The capture and subsequent elimination of Zakharenko was carried out by Pavlyuchenko, a SOBR company commander, the special forces First Company commander, and four of his officers. On 8 May, Pavlyuchenko returned the pistol to Alkayev. The capture and elimination of [Victor] Honchar and [Yuri] Krasovsky was carried out by Pavlyuchenko on 16 September 1999 in a similar way."
RFE/RL has obtained copies of the documents on which Honcharyk based his charges. Most important among them is a handwritten report about the three dead opposition figures purportedly written by Belarus' former criminal police chief, Nikolai Lopatik, and addressed to the current minister of the interior, Vladimir Naumov. The report is written on plain paper without any official heading.
Other documents -- these on government stationery -- include a statement by an official called Oleh Alkayev, who confirms he twice issued a pistol with a silencer to Pavlyuchenko around the times when the opposition figures disappeared. It was not possible for RFE/RL to check the authenticity of the documents.
Honcharyk said that the bodies of those murdered were buried in a cemetery in Minsk.
"The bodies of Zakharenko, Honchar, and Krasovsky were buried at the special prisoner burial site in the Severnoye cemetery." Yesterday, State Department spokesman Hunter said that the two former Belarus investigators given asylum -- Petrushkevich and Sluchak -- have made detailed revelations about a death squad.
"The two investigators have made detailed and credible revelations about a Lukashenka regime death squad that's reportedly responsible for up to 30 murders."
Today, Hunter told RFE/RL that information about the involvement of Lukashenka's regime in these activities is taken very seriously by the United States.
Petrushkevich and Sluchak worked for the Belarus Prosecutor-General's Office, but fled to the United States last month and are at an undisclosed location. Hunter said Petrushkevich had been helping investigate the disappearance a year ago of Belarusian television journalist Dzmitry Zavadski, who was working for the Russian ORT television channel. Zavadski was regarded as critical of the Lukashenka regime.
Hunter said that Petrushkevich and Sluchak believe Zavadski is buried in the same cemetery cited by Honcharyk. They said that last November, Belarus' then-Prosecutor-General Oleh Bozhelko, who was investigating the disappearances, requested some equipment from Russia to enable him to locate the bodies. Hunter said yesterday:
"Shortly after Bozhelko made this request, Aleyaksandr Lukashenka fired him and canceled the request. Belarusian authorities need to account for these people in order to remove the current climate of fear and create an atmosphere conducive to free and fair presidential elections."
The two Belarusians met Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky earlier this month. On 7 July, the United States issued a statement saying it remained "deeply concerned" about the Zavadski case. Earlier this month, Belarus Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov told a press conference that four people could face trial in August for Zavadski's disappearance. Naumov said the group was led by a former officer of an elite police unit who was angered by the journalist's reports.
Lukashenka has run Belarus in an increasingly authoritarian manner since coming to power in 1994. In 1996, he extended his term in office and dissolved the opposition-led parliament. Most Western countries and international bodies like the European Union do not recognize his unilateral extension of his term and have shunned him. The United States has been one of Lukashenka's most outspoken critics and has withheld financial aid from Belarus.