WASHINGTON -- The United States says Belarus should extend the statute of limitations on the investigation into the disappearance of two critics of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka 15 years ago this week.
Opposition leader Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatol Krasouski “risked their lives and bright futures to stand up to repression” before they vanished on September 16, 1999, after visiting a sauna in Minsk, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
“Their disappearances are a great loss, not only for their loved ones, but for the Belarusian people,” Harf said in a September 16 statement marking the 15th anniversary of the vanishings.
The United States also remembers former Belarusian Interior Minister and Lukashenka opponent Yury Zaharanka, as well as cameraman Dzmitry Zavadzski, who disappeared in 1999 and 2000, respectively, Harf added.
All of the men are presumed dead, and their relatives believe Belarusian secret services are responsible for their abductions and possible murders.
“We remain deeply concerned with the fate of these four men and call on the Belarusian authorities to extend the statute of limitations and thoroughly and transparently investigate their disappearances,” Harf said. “The families of the disappeared deserve justice.”
Under Belarusian law, serious crimes carry a statute of limitations of 15 years.
A rapporteur from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) concluded in 2004 that senior Belarusian officials "may themselves be involved" in the disappearances of Hanchar and Krasouski, and that "steps were taken at the highest level of the state to actively cover up the true background" of their vanishings.
Hanchar was a former Lukashenka campaign official who later joined the opposition, while Krasouski was a successful businessman critical of the Belarusian president.
“We renew our call on Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and restore their political rights,” Harf said. “It is our firm belief that Belarus’ future can only be brighter, more stable and more prosperous with a more open society and greater democratization.”
The statement follows an appeal by Krasouski's widow, Irina Krasovskaya, and Washington-based activists to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month.
In the August 27 letter, they called on the United States to urge Minsk to "thoroughly investigate" the disappearances of Hanchar, Krasouski, Zakharanka, and Zavadzski, as well as issue a public report with the findings of the investigation.
Meanwhile, U.S.-based activists were preparing to rally in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Washington on the afternoon of September 16 to protest the lack of progress in the investigations of the disappearances of Hanchar and Krasouski.
"The point of the protest is just to remind people that yes, it's been 15 years and there still hasn't been an investigation that has gotten any sort of results, and that this should remain on the agenda for the Belarusian authorities," Alice Kipel, vice president of the Washington chapter of the Belarusan-American Association (BAZA), told RFE/RL.
BAZA is organizing the demonstration together with Amnesty International USA. Kipel said organizers are hoping for a turnout of about 20 people but that staging the event in the late afternoon during the work day could mean fewer attendees.
They chose the time to ensure that employees at the Belarusian Embassy would see the protest, Kipel said.
"We feel the more we continue to shine the light on the situation, the more likely at some point in time that the Belarusian authorities will actually do a thorough, transparent investigation and that there will be some accounting of what happened," she said.