CPJ calls for international inquiry into cameraman’s disappearance

New York, April 2, 2002—CPJ calls for an independent, international inquiry into the July 2000 disappearance of Belarusian cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky.

Although two former members of the elite Almaz special forces unit were recently convicted of kidnapping Zavadsky, local sources view them as scapegoats. CPJ is disturbed that state prosecutors failed to investigate allegations that high-level government figures were involved in Zavadsky’s disappearance. (Zavadsky’s body has not yet been found, and no serious effort has been made to determine his fate.)

“This trial failed to examine credible allegations of a government role in Zavadsky’s disappearance, or to clarify the journalist’s fate following his abduction,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We believe that only an independent, international investigation can determine what happened to Zavadsky and who is responsible for his disappearance.

“We call on Belarusian authorities, in cooperation with the Zavadsky family and their lawyers, to invite a panel of international and regional human rights experts to conduct an independent investigation of this case with full access to all relevant evidence,” Cooper said.

“The expert panel should be mandated to produce a report containing specific recommendations for future legal actions to be taken in connection with the Zavadsky case, in accordance with Belarusian and international law,” Cooper added.

Zavadsky, who worked as a cameraman with the Russian public television network ORT, disappeared on July 7, 2000, when he failed to keep a scheduled late-morning rendezvous with his longtime friend and colleague Pavel Sheremet at Minsk-2 airport. Sheremet and Zavadsky had recently traveled to Chechnya to shoot a documentary about the war there.

The trial was held behind closed doors in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Journalists were only allowed into the courtroom for the reading of the sentence on March 14.

Two former Almaz members, Valery Ignatovich and Maxim Malik, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors argued that Ignatovich and Malik kidnapped the journalist in reprisal for an interview he gave to the Minsk-based Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta. In the interview, Zavadsky alleged that certain unnamed Belarusians had fought with Chechen rebels against Russian forces.

Zavadsky supporters skeptical
Zavadsky’s lawyer and family said the trial failed to examine credible allegations that Belarusian authorities were also involved in Zavadsky’s abduction. Sergei Tsurko, a lawyer for Zavadsky’s family, claimed Ignatovich and Malik are scapegoats and that real responsibility lies with the Belarusian government.

“If we assume their involvement, I think they were just underlings who fulfilled a certain part of the job,” Svetlana Zavadsky, the missing journalist’s wife, told the independent news agency BelaPAN. “And I think that those who really know something, the organizers, are at large.”

In July, while visiting Washington, D.C., Svetlana Zavadsky called on the U.S. government and the international community to establish an independent commission to investigate her husband’s disappearance and other politically motivated deaths and disappearances in Belarus.

On March 25, the missing cameraman’s relatives filed a petition with the Belarusian Supreme Court, claiming that prosecutors had not sufficiently proven that Ignatovich and Malik were responsible for kidnapping Zavadsky. The petition urged further investigation into Zavadsky’s abduction and his subsequent fate.

Former officials say government involved in disappearance
In June 2001, two former employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office—Dmitry Petrushkevich and Oleg Sluchek—alleged that Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko had derailed the investigation because of evidence linking a government-led death squad to Zavadsky’s murder. In June, both men were granted asylum in the United States.

Zavadsky’s colleague Pavel Sheremet and local opposition groups have supported these claims.

The U.S. State Department has also publicly validated the claims made by Petrushkevich and Sluchek. “We think these revelations are important,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a June 19 press briefing.

Two weeks later, on July 3, Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and other U.S. officials met with Petrushkevich and Sluchek to discuss Zavadsky’s disappearance and several other cases in which Belarusian individuals were allegedly murdered for political reasons, Agence France-Presse reported.