Council of Europe calls for sanctions against Belarus

New York, April 30, 2004—The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which is based in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday passed a resolution seeking sanctions against the authoritarian government of Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko for failing to properly investigate a series of abductions, including the July 2000 abduction of journalist Dmitry Zavadsky.

PACE called on members of the Council of Europe, a pan-European human rights monitoring organization, to apply “a maximum of political pressure” against Belarusian authorities until they conduct a credible inquiry into allegations that senior government officials—including Prosecutor General Viktar Sheiman—ordered the abduction of Lukashenko’s political opponents and then covered up their involvement.

The resolution also called on the Committee of Ministers—the Council of Europe’s decision-making body, comprised of Foreign Affairs Ministers of all member states—to suspend political contacts with Lukashenko’s government, increase cooperation with Belarusian nongovernmental organizations, and consider suspending Belarus’ participation in the Council of Europe.

PACE approved the resolution after debating a report prepared by Council of Europe Special Rapporteur Christos Pourgourides alleging that high-level government officials were involved in the disappearance and its subsequent cover-up of Zavadsky and several opposition activists.

“We welcome the Council of Europe’s call for sanctions against President Lukashenko’s government,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Journalists in Belarus will not feel safe until the government’s role in Zavadsky’s disappearance is fully clarified and those responsible for his abduction and subsequent death are behind bars.”

Zavadsky, a 29-year-old cameraman for the Russian public television network ORT, went missing on July 7, 2000. His 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.

Zavadsky’s colleague and friend Pavel Sheremet, along with Zavadsky’s wife, Svetlana Zavadskaya, 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 a theory that Belarusian security agents had been involved in the crime.

Anonymous sources close to the investigation 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 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.

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.

On December 10, 2003, prosecutors announced they had reopened the Zavadsky investigation, two days before the Council of Europe released a report alleging that high-level government officials were involved in the journalist’s disappearance and its subsequent cover-up. Belarusian authorities closed the case on March 31, 2004, said the Minsk-based human rights group Charter 97.