Prosecutors close investigation into journalist’s abduction

New York, April 19, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has learned that prosecutors in Belarus’ capital, Minsk, have suspended their criminal inquiry into the July 7, 2000, abduction of Dmitry Zavadsky, a 29-year-old cameraman for the Russian public television network ORT, who disappeared in July 2000.

Ivan Branchel, deputy head of the prosecutor’s organized crime and corruption department, sent a letter to Zavadsky’s wife, Svetlana Zavadskaya, in early April informing her that the case was closed on March 31, said the Minsk-based human rights group Charter 97.

“I think this [inquiry] was all a formality,” Svetlana Zavadskaya told CPJ in a telephone interview today. “I have the impression the authorities open and close the investigation because of their own political interests.”

Prosecutors announced they had reopened the Zavadsky investigation on December 10, 2003, two days before the Strasbourg, France-based Council of Europe, a pan-Europe human rights monitoring organization, released a report alleging that high-level government officials were involved in the journalist’s disappearance and its subsequent cover-up.

The authorities have refused to inform Zavadskaya of the investigative activities that were undertaken—something relatives of victims are authorized to obtain under Belarus law, said Zavadskaya. “I asked for a copy and was informed on April 15 that it will not be provided to me,” she said. “I think there is nothing there to report.”

“President Lukashenko’s regime continues to obstruct the inquiry into Dmitry Zavadsky’s disappearance,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “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 went 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 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 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.

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.