New York, August 5, 2004—Two weeks after the Belarusian president said he had information and documents about the investigation into a 29-year-old cameraman’s disappearance, the journalist’s mother is demanding a renewed inquiry.
Olga Zavadskaya, whose son Dmitry is presumed dead after vanishing four years ago, told CPJ in an interview today that she filed a formal petition August 4 with the Prosecutor General’s Office in the Belarusian capitol of Minsk.
Zavadskaya urged prosecutors to question President Aleksandr Lukashenko about the investigation into the disappearance of her son, a cameraman for Russian television station ORT. At a July 20 press conference, the president said he had information and documents about the Zavadsky case.
“Considering he told the whole world about this [information], according to the law this should be investigated,” Zavadskaya said in a telephone interview with CPJ. “As a victim in this case, I decided to file this request.”
Investigations conducted by journalists, human rights organizations and international organizations such as the Council of Europe, have implicated senior Belarusian officials in the disappearances of Zavadsky and a number of opposition activists in previous years.
“President Lukashenko’s regime continues to obstruct the inquiry into Dmitry Zavadsky’s disappearance,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “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.”
According to a translation of Lukashenko’s July 20 comments by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the president claimed to have shared investigative information and documents with a woman he did not identify.
The original version of Lukashenko’s comments is on the presidential Web site (http://president.gov.by/rus/president/speech/2004/pressc2007/). The translated version states:
“What surprises me: if the relatives worry so much, why don’t you come to me. One person came to me, a woman, you know the reason why I can’t call her surname. She came to me, I accepted her. She asked me about one man, I again don’t call his surname. I was impressed by this woman. She’s brave. I spoke with her for three hours and showed to her certain documents. If I gave publicity to them now, Zavadsky’s case would turn into ‘anti-case.’ By the way, it’s my only pain – [Dmitry] Zavadsky. I am also very interested to find about the fate of this man.”
Zavadsky’s mother and his widow, Svetlana, told CPJ they had not communicated with Lukashenko about the case and did not know whom Lukashenko was referring to in his comments.
“Prosecutors have never had a desire…to work actively on this case,” Olga Zavadskaya told CPJ. “They haven’t responded to even one of our requests for information about how they are conducting the investigation and what they have done.”
Zavadsky was discovered missing on July 7, 2000, when he failed to keep a scheduled meeting with longtime colleague and friend Pavel Sheremet at the airport in Minsk.
Zavadsky’s neighbors told the police 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 said they had ruled out a theory that Belarusian security agents had been involved in the crime.
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.
But 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 alleged that Lukashenko derailed the investigation because of evidence linking Zavadsky’s disappearance to a government-led death squad, were granted asylum in the United States.
Investigation reopened, closed
Prosecutors reopened the Zavadsky investigation on December 10, 2003, two days before the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental human rights organization based in Strasbourg, France, released a report alleging that high-level government officials were involved in the journalist’s disappearance and its subsequent cover-up.
But in April of this year, prosecutors informed the Zavadsky family that they had suspended the remaining criminal inquiry.
“I think this [inquiry] was all a formality,” Svetlana Zavadskaya told CPJ in a telephone interview April 19. “I have the impression the authorities open and close the investigation because of their own political interests.”