Court declares missing journalist dead

New York, December 2, 2003—Last week, a district court in the Belarus’ capital, Minsk, declared journalist Dmitry Zavadsky officially dead. Zavadsky, a 29-year-old cameraman for the Russian public television network ORT, disappeared in July 2000.

According to local press reports, the cameraman’s widow, Svetlana Zavadskaya, initiated the judicial process in October 2003. Zavadsky’s body was never recovered following his abduction.

On November 28, Judge Nataliya Andreyeva spent several hours examining evidence presented by the Public Prosecutor’s Office that the ORT cameraman had died after his abduction and then officially changed Zavadsky’s status from missing to dead.

According to local journalists, the court made no mention of changing the March 2002 kidnapping charge of two former members of the special police to murder.

“This was done for property-related reasons so that my apartment can be registered in my name,” Zavadskaya told the Committee to Protect Journalists in a telephone interview today. “I still want to find out the truth about my husband and what happened to him.”

The Public Prosecutor’s Office ended its investigation into the Zavadsky case in January 2003 claiming they had pursued all available leads in the cameraman’s disappearance.

Zavadsky was reported missing on July 7, 2000, after he failed to keep a scheduled late-morning rendezvous with his longtime colleague and friend Pavel Sheremet at the airport in Minsk.

Zavadsky’s neighbors told the police that they saw two men trailing the journalist near his apartment building on the day he disappeared. But a search for the journalist by local police and officials from the local prosecutor’s office turned up no clues.

Sheremet and Zavadsky’s wife told reporters that Zavadsky began receiving threatening phone calls from an unknown man after the cameraman returned from Chechnya where he had worked on a documentary film about the war.

In August 2000, police classified Zavadsky’s disappearance as a premeditated crime, announced they had identified five suspects, and ruled out the theory that Belarusian security agents had been involved in the crime.

Anonymous sources close to the investigation, however, informed the local media that some of the suspects had confessed to killing Zavadsky and named the place where his body was buried. According to these sources, higher authorities prevented the investigators from exhuming the body.

On March 14, 2002, two former members of the special police unit, Valery Ignatovich and Maxim Malik, were convicted in a closed trial and sentenced to life in prison for abducting Zavadsky. Prosecutors argued that Ignatovich and Malik kidnapped the journalist in reprisal for an interview he had given to the independent Minsk daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta during which he alleged that certain unnamed Belarusians had fought with Chechen rebels against Russian forces.

Zavadsky’s lawyer and family said the trial failed to examine credible allegations that Belarusian authorities were also involved in the abduction.

In June 2002, two former employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Dmitry Petrushkevich and Oleg Sluchek, who had alleged that President Alexandr Lukashenko had derailed the investigation because of evidence linking a government-led death squad to Zavadsky’s murder, were granted asylum in the United States.