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In Wake Of Belarus Executions, Doubts About Judicial Process

A combo photo of Uladzislau Kavalyou (left) and Dzmitry Kanavalau during a court hearing in Minsk in September 2011.
VITSEBSK, Belarus -- Candles and flowers litter the stairwell outside the apartment of Lyubou Kavalyova, the mother of one of the two men executed for the April 2011 subway bombing in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Dozens of people have gathered at the site to express their condolences to the grieving mother, even forming a human chain winding up the stairs to the front door of Kavalyova's modest Vitsebsk flat.

Inside, Kavalyova -- who fought a public battle to save the life of her son, 26-year-old Uladzislau Kavalyou -- sits shakily on a sofa, holding a photograph of her child and fighting back tears. "I can't believe that my son is gone," Kavalyova says. "My soul -- I don't know -- it can't accept it."

Kavalyou and a childhood friend, Dzmitry Kanavalau, were each executed by a single bullet to the back of the head shortly after the country's authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, denied a plea for clemency.

Their families then received a formal letter, dated March 16, informing them that the sentences had been carried out.

In The Dark

Belarus, the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty, has maintained the Soviet-era practice of not informing family members ahead of executions.

The two men were apprehended the day after the bombing, a rare act of terrorism in Belarus that left 15 people dead and hundreds more wounded.

They were convicted and sentenced to death in November following a trial that critics said suffered from a lack of due process and physical evidence linking the men to the crime.

Kanavalau initially admitted to carrying out the bombing but then refused to make an opening or closing statement or testify in his own defense.

Kavalyou, who was considered an accessory to the bombing, offered a confession but later retracted, claiming he had confessed under pressure. Family members claim both men were beaten and threatened during police interrogation.

Flowers and photos of Uladzislau Kavalyou on a table in the apartment of his mother in Minsk
Flowers and photos of Uladzislau Kavalyou on a table in the apartment of his mother in Minsk
Prosecutors offered no motive for the attacks, other than that the two men sought to disrupt the country's social order.

The subway bombing struck at a time of political unrest in Belarus, just weeks after hundreds of political opponents had been arrested in the wake of controversial presidential elections handing Lukashenka a fresh term.

At the time, activists suggested Lukashenka was attempting to use the Minsk attack as a pretext for additional security clampdowns, as well as an opportunity to distract the public from a looming economic crisis.

Some observers suggested Kanavalau and Kavalyou may have been acting on the orders of a third party.

Vasil Kaptsiukh, whose 21-year-old son Raman was among those killed in the April 11 blast, says Kanavalau and Kavalyou did nothing to protest their innocence or implicate others during the trial.

Still, he says, the execution was far from welcome news.

"Regarding my opinion about the sentence, I've always been against the death penalty," Kaptsiukh says. "For the parents, it's a very cruel thing. I've experienced myself what it means to lose a child, and I can imagine how their mothers must feel now."

WATCH -- Lyubou Kavalyova speaks about the execution of her son, Uladzislau Kavalyou:
Mother Of Executed Belarusian Prisoner: 'I Can't Accept It'
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The executions have sparked anger in Belarus, where protesters in Minsk lit candles outside the subway station that was the site of the blast.

Some observers accused authorities of racing to execute the men in just four months in order to bury complaints about the trial. Normally, it takes one or two years after a sentencing before an execution is carried out.

The European Union has likewise condemned the move, which came even as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was making a direct appeal for the executions to be delayed or overturned.

Earlier, Lyubou Kavalyova had taken the unprecedented step of traveling to Brussels to address the European Parliament and ask for their help in commuting the death sentence.

She had also helped her son file an appeal against his death sentence with the United Nations Committee on Human Rights and was awaiting a response at the time of his execution.

In Lukashenka's Hands

Aleh Alkayeu, the former head of the execution squad at Minsk prison No. 1, where hundreds of death sentences have been carried out, says he believes the executions could have been prevented if activists had not appealed for help to Western bodies, and particularly the EU.

Minsk residents lay flowers at the Kastrychnitskaya subway station, the site of the April 2011 bombing, on March 19.
Minsk residents lay flowers at the Kastrychnitskaya subway station, the site of the April 2011 bombing, on March 19.
Lyubou Kavalyova in particular took the unprecedented step of traveling to Brussels to address the European Parliament and ask for their help in commuting the death sentence.

Alkayeu, who now lives in Germany, says he saw only one death sentence pardoned out of around 400 during his time as prison chief in Minsk.

He suggests Kavalyova may have provoked Lukashenka by looking West rather than appealing to him directly, at a time when his dictatorial regime has come under increasingcastigation by the West.

"I said to her, 'If you're trying to save someone, there's only one way -- ask the president for a pardon,'" Alkayeu says. "I know all too well that the European structures help very little. They don't try to use methods of persuasion; instead, they try to operate from a position of force, and that's unacceptable in a dictatorship. The European Parliament has no realistic way to level a serious threat."

Kavalyova, having lost her battle, has now expressed the wish that her son's body be returned to her for proper burial -- a violation of Belarusian prison procedure.

"I know that they don't give the bodies of executed prisoners to their mothers," she says. "But they've forced him to pay for their own sins, so maybe they'll give me his body in return."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Anna Sous in Minsk. Correspondent Aleh Hruzdzilovich also contributed to this report
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    Anna Sous

    Anna Sous is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Belarus Service.​ She is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism at the Belarusian State University. She worked for the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya from 1997–2000 and has been with RFE/RL since then. She is a recipient of the Ales Adamovich Prize from the Belarusian PEN Center and was recognized as Journalist of the Year by the Belarusian human rights community in 2019. She is also the creator of Russia And Me -- a series of interviews with 12 former presidents of post-Soviet countries.

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    Daisy Sindelar

    Daisy Sindelar is the vice president and editor in chief of RFE/RL.