Zavadsky, 29, a kidnapped cameraman with the Russian public television network ORT, was officially declared dead by a district court in the capital, Minsk. 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.
The journalist was reported missing after he failed to keep a scheduled late-morning rendezvous on July 7, 2000, with his longtime colleague and friend Pavel Sheremet at the airport in Minsk.
Local media reported that Zavadsky had been seen inside the airport not long before Sheremet’s flight arrived from Moscow. Zavadsky’s car was later found locked and parked outside the airport building. A search for the journalist by local police and officials from the local prosecutor’s office turned up no clues.
Sheremet, a former ORT bureau chief in Minsk who now heads the station’s special projects department in Moscow, had recently traveled to Chechnya with Zavadsky to shoot “The Chechen Diary,” a four-part documentary about the war there. CPJ sources in Belarus suspect that Zavadsky was abducted because he had footage that showed Belarusian security agents fighting alongside Chechen rebel forces.
Sheremet and Zavadsky’s wife told reporters that shortly after Zavadsky returned from Chechnya, he began receiving phone calls from an unknown man who insisted on a meeting.
Zavadsky was President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s personal cameraman until 1996. During the summer of 1997, local police detained Sheremet and Zavadsky while they were filming a documentary about smuggling between Belarus and Lithuania. They later received a suspended sentence for alleged illegal border crossing.
Sheremet has repeatedly accused Belarusian intelligence agents of being involved in Zavadsky’s disappearance. Although investigators have publicly rejected this theory, Sheremet claims they do not rule it out in private. The Belarusian prosecutor’s office has “cautiously hinted that former agents of the Belarus secret services, along with some of their Russian counterparts, might have been involved,” Sheremet told the local news agency BelaPAN.
Senior Belarus officials, including Acting Interior Minister Mikhail Udovikov, have hinted that Zavadsky’s disappearance may have resulted from his pro-Russian coverage of the war in Chechnya. They have also suggested that the journalist was kidnapped, either by his ORT colleagues, including Sheremet, or by members of the local opposition.
In addition to the threatening phone calls Zavadsky had received before his disappearance, two men were spotted trailing the journalist near his apartment building on the day he disappeared, Zavadsky’s neighbors told police. The police commissioned artist sketches of the alleged stalkers but refused to release them. In early August 2000, police also collected samples of Zavadsky’s hair from his family for testing without explaining the purpose of the tests.
Later that month, police classified Zavadsky’s disappearance as a premeditated crime and announced they had identified five suspects. The primary suspect, a leader of the Belarusian branch of the ultraright Russian National Unity movement named Valery Ignatovich, was in prison by the end of 2000. Police ruled out the theory that Belarusian security agents had been involved in the crime.
On November 20, 2000, local independent media had received an unsigned e-mail from a person who identified himself as an officer of the Belarus State Security Committee involved in the Zavadsky investigation. The writer claimed that nine suspects had been arrested, seven of whom were either current or former officers of the Presidential Security Service, and that the suspects had confessed to killing Zavadsky and had named the place where his body was buried. According to the e-mail, the investigators had also found a shovel stained with Zavadsky’s blood.
Additionally, the e-mail claimed that President Lukashenko refused to allow investigators to exhume the body, and that the case was later transferred from the Prosecutor’s Office to the Interior Ministry to sabotage the investigation.
The next day, the Belarusian State Security Council denounced the allegations, while Lukashenko blamed Zavadsky’s disappearance on Chechen kidnappers. At the same time, Sheremet told BelaPAN he believed that the information from the anonymous e-mailer might be trustworthy, while local sources told CPJ that they had received similar information from other anonymous sources close to the investigation.
A week after the e-mail was made public, Lukashenko fired four senior aides: his adviser on security issues, the chairman of the Security Council, the prosecutor general, and the head of the State Security Committee. Lukashenko claimed that the four men had been plotting a coup and had abducted Zavadsky in an effort to compromise the president.
Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov promised to resolve the case no later than January 2001. Local observers questioned the integrity of the investigation, however, given that Naumov once headed the special police unit, Almaz, some of whose members were suspected of being involved in the crime.
On March 14, 2002, two former Almaz members, Valery Ignatovich and Maxim Malik, were convicted 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 Minsk-based Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta during which he alleged that certain unnamed Belarusians had fought with Chechen rebels against Russian forces.
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.
Zavadsky’s lawyer and family said the trial failed to examine credible allegations that Belarusian authorities were also involved in the abduction. Sergei Tsurko, a lawyer for Zavadsky’s family, claims that Ignatovich and Malik are scapegoats and that real responsibility lies with the Belarusian government.
On March 25, 2002, 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.
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.
Zavadsky’s colleague Pavel Sheremet and local opposition groups have supported these claims.
The U.S. State Department has also publicly validated Petrushkevich and Sluchek’s claims. “We think these revelations are important,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a June 19, 2002, press briefing.
Two weeks later, on July 3, 2002, 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.
On November 28, 2003, a district court in Minsk declared Zavadsky officially dead. 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.
“This was done for property-related reasons so that my apartment can be registered in my name,” Zavadskaya told CPJ. “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.
On December 10, 2003, prosecutors announced they had reopened the investigation about 48 hours before the 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.
However, Ivan Branchel, deputy head of the prosecutor’s Organized Crime and Corruption Department, sent a letter to Zavadskaya in early April 2004 informing her that the case was closed on March 31, 2004, said the Minsk-based human rights group Charter 97.
Authorities have refused to give Zavadskaya information about the investigation, which relatives of victims are authorized to obtain under Belarus law, said Zavadskaya.