Belarus: Missing journalist feared dead; official investigation stalled

December 26, 2000

His Excellency Alexander Lukashenko
President of Belarus Republic
Minsk 220020
VIA FAX: 011-375-172-23-58-25

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by the lack of progress in the investigation into the disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman with the Russian public television network ORT who has been missing since July 7. Because no group has come forward to take responsibility for Zavadsky’s disappearance over the past six months, we now fear that the journalist may have been killed. The official investigation, which has been carried out in secret, now appears to be stalled.

In order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, especially given the fact that some of the suspects in the crime have been linked to the government, CPJ urges Your Excellency to appoint an independent prosecutor with the authority to investigate the case and prosecute those responsible.

Dmitry Zavadsky has been missing since July 7, when he failed to keep a scheduled late-morning rendezvous with his long-time colleague and friend Pavel Sheremet at the local airport in Minsk. Local media reported that Zavadsky had been seen inside the airport not long before Sheremet’s flight arrived from Moscow. Zavadsky’s car was later found locked and parked outside the airport building. A search for the journalist by local police and officials from the prosecutor’s office turned up no clues.

Not long before Zavadsky’s disappearance, Sheremet, a former ORT bureau chief in Minsk who now heads the station’s special information projects department in Moscow, had traveled to Chechnya with Zavadsky. The two journalists were filming a four-part documentary titled “The Chechen Diary.” Sheremet and Zavadsky’s wife told reporters that shortly after Zavadsky returned from Chechnya, he began receiving phone calls from an unknown man who insisted on a meeting. Additionally, two men were spotted trailing the journalist near his apartment building on the day he disappeared, Zavadsky’s neighbors told police.

Senior Belarus officials, including the then acting interior minister, Mikhail Udovikov, initially 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 members of the local opposition.

Sheremet has repeatedly charged that members of the Belarusian intelligence community are involved in Zavadsky’s disappearance. Although investigators have publicly rejected this theory on several occasions, Sheremet claims the Belarus prosecutor’s office has cautiously hinted that former agents of the Belarus secret services might have been involved.

In late August, police classified Zavadsky’s disappearance as a premeditated crime and announced they had identified five suspects. The primary suspect, a leader of the Belarusian branch of the ultra-rightist Russian National Unity movement named Valery Ignatovich, is currently in prison pending the end of the investigation.

On November 20, local independent media organizations received an unsigned e-mail from a person who identified himself as an officer of the Belarus State Security Committee involved in the investigation of Zavadsky’s disappearance. He alleged that nine people had been arrested in relation to this crime, and that seven of them were either current or former officers of the Presidential Security Service. The author also asserted that the suspects had confessed to abducting and killing Zavadsky and had named the place where his body was buried. According to the e-mail, the investigators also had found a shovel stained with Zavadsky’s blood. The e-mail further claimed that Your Excellency’s offices refused to allow investigators to exhume the body and that the case was later transferred from the Prosecutor’s Office to the Interior Ministry in order to sabotage the investigation.

The next day, on November 21, the Belarusian State Security Council denounced the allegations and Zavadsky’s disappearance was again blamed on Chechen kidnappers. At the same time, local sources told CPJ that revelations made in the e-mail seem trustworthy because similar information had been provided by other anonymous sources close to the investigation. CPJ sources in Belarus suspect that Zavadsky was abducted because he had footage that showed Belarus security agents fighting against Russian forces in Chechnya.

We are aware that Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov promised to resolve the case by no later than January 2001. However, we question the integrity of the investigation given that Naumov once headed the Almaz police unit, an elite force charged with combating crime and terrorism. Some members of Almaz are suspected in connection with the crime.

As a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues around the world, CPJ condemns the apparent reluctance of investigators to fully investigate and resolve this crime. We suspect that some of the government’s offices are using this unresolved case to foster a climate of fear among journalists in Belarus. We urge Your Excellency to name an independent body to promptly investigate the case in a transparent manner, as the chances of locating Zavadsky alive are diminishing with time.

Thank you for your attention. We await your comments.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director