Six weeks after disappearance, ORT cameraman still missing

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New York, August 11, 2000 –The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is greatly alarmed that Belarusian authorities have not yet determined the whereabouts of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman for Russian Public Television (ORT) who disappeared in Minsk on July 7.

While Belarus law-enforcement officials insist they have significant leads that they plan to disclose soon, CPJ fears that the chances of finding the journalist are diminishing every day. CPJ is also concerned that the investigation is not being carried out openly and that important information is being concealed from the public.

“There is zero information about the case, no new clues, although it is clear that politics are involved,” Aleksandr Tomkovich, vice-president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told CPJ. “But public and press interest in the case is constantly declining.” If Zavadsky is not found soon, Tomkovich added, the case might be forgotten as the parliamentary election campaign heats up.

Zavadsky has been missing since July 7, when he failed to meet his friend and ORT colleague Pavel Sheremet at Minsk-2 Airport. A few hours later, Zavadsky’s car was found locked and parked outside the airport building. An immediate search of the airport vicinity yielded no trace of the journalist.

In 1997, Zavadsky was jailed for several weeks, along with Sheremet, after Belarusian border guards detained them while they were filming for a story about security along the Belarus-Lithuania border.

Sheremet has charged that members of the Belarusian intelligence community were involved in Zavadsky’s disappearance last month. Although investigators have publicly rejected this theory, Sheremet claims they do not rule it out in private. “They [the Belarus prosecutor’s office] have cautiously hinted that former agents of Belarus secret services, along with some of their Russian counterparts, might have been involved,” Sheremet told the local news agency BelaPAN.

Senior Belarus officials, including Acting Interior Minister Mikhail Udovikov, have hinted that Zavadsky’s disappearance may have resulted from his pro-Russian coverage of the war in Chechnya. They have also suggested that the journalist was kidnapped, either by his ORT colleagues, including Sheremet, or by the local opposition.

Zavadsky had reportedly been receiving phone threats prior to his disappearance. Additionally, two men were seen near the journalist’s apartment building stalking him on the day of his disappearance, Zavadsky’s neighbors told police. The police have apparently produced artist sketches of the alleged stalkers, but have so far refused to release them. Recently, police also collected samples of Zavadsky’s hair from his family for testing, without explaining the purpose of the tests.

BelaPAN reported yesterday that police had summoned Zavadsky’s wife and convinced her to sign an agreement that she would not disclose any information regarding the investigation.

“We are deeply concerned about Dmitry’s safety,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We urge Belarus authorities to intensify their search and to share the results of the investigation with the public.”