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28 Jan

Ihar Tsikhanenka, Voice of America, November 28, 2011 (Belarus)

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Vitebsk lads that blew up Belarus…

Punishment without crime: two young men can be executed without being proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt

"Sentence to death by firing squad without confiscation of property" – that’s the verdict that the state prosecution asked the Supreme Court of Belarus in the case of a terrorist attack in the Minsk metro, which occurred at the "Oktyabrskaya" subway station in April 2011. The verdict in the case of the blast that took 15 lives and injured over 200 people, will be presented before the highest court in Belarus on Wednesday 30 November.

On trial, 25 year old Vitebsk residents Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalev, who, according to the prosecution, used their phenomenal bomb making abilities to construct an explosive device complex and unique in nature. The investigation documents say that the two young men, without special education in Chemistry, were able to assemble the deadly mechanism just in three days in the basement of one of the Vitebsk high-rise’s basements that was used as a makeshift laboratory.

Two "young geniuses", who started on the criminal path in 1999, and for whom in vain for over a decade were chasing the best Belarusian criminologists, were arrested within hours after the terrible explosion in the Minsk subway. To conduct that "brilliantly executed operation," as Alexander Lukashenko would call the arrest later, it took the Belarusian operatives less than 24 hours. Within two days after their arrest the turner and the electrician from the regional city of Belarus confessed to dozens of crimes that occurred in the country from 1999 to 2011. At the time of the first explosions (1999) that the young men took responsibility for, they were  just14 years old. So say the official charges.

To date, Konovalov is accused of more than 30 cases, and his accomplice and accessary Kovalev - of 15.

Human rights activists and experts fear that the only country in Europe that still has the death penalty, might once again exercise that right.

Meanwhile, independent experts have serious doubts about the objectivity of the collected evidence of the biggest terrorist case in the history of Belarus, numbering around 550 volumes.

"Certainly, two teens can organize and implement the attack of that magnitude”, - believes the Russian-American historian, author of "The FSB Blows Up Russia"(co-authored with Alexander Litvinenko) Yuri Felshtinsky. – There is plenty of information on the Internet, plenty of guidelines of how to do that. Another question worth asking here is: Do I trust the Belarusian judicial system today? The answer is simple - no. I would look very carefully at any Belarusian court’s ruling in the current circumstances. "

The reasons for Felshtinsky’s skepticism are rooted in his suspicion to the Belarusian authorities and the political situation in the country as a whole. The historian does not rule out that the Belarusian secret services themselves, that "brilliantly" cracked the high-profile case, could be involved in the Minsk metro explosion.

"Certainly, the Belarusian secret services could be behind those attacks. Hypothetically speaking, I do not exclude that the Belarusian regime could have had some interest in the destabilization of the political situation in the country ", - Felshtinsky said in a comment to Voice of America.

However, the historian says, if this is indeed the case, the public is unlikely to ever find it out.

"Experience shows that if the security forces are operating on foreign soil, they can still be held accountable. If the security forces commit acts of terrorism in their own country and then “investigate” those, it is very difficult to find the true perpetrators", - says Felshtinsky.

The evidence base

Meanwhile, independent legal experts and defendant’s lawyers believe the weakest part of the investigation that raises many questions is the evidence base of the case.

Last week during one of the trials, defense counsel Stanislav Abrazei asked the judge to fully acquit the main accused, for the prosecution had not presented any sound motives for his client to commit the crime.

According to Konovalov’s lawyer, in the video from the surveillance cameras used by prosecution as one of the main evidence pieces proving his involvement in the explosion, one can not see the person’s face with a sports bag, which presumably was a bomb. Moreover, as ascertained by experts, the person in the metro was at least 10 cm taller and noticeably larger than the accused Konovalov.

In addition, the prosecution has failed to explain to the court why the video demonstrated to the assembly was edited, and Konovalov’s body did not have a trace of soot or residue of explosives, which, according to experts, is simply impossible, if he was present at the blast location.

Belarusian independent lawyer and human rights activist Valentin Stefanovich agrees with other experts on "white holes" in the statements of state prosecutors.

"There are a lot of questions to be asked of the prosecution. The video we are talking about has several seconds cut out, which, as you understand, are very important. So far, the investigation did not provide clear answers about who edited the video. From time to time some people appear on the video who accompany the man with the bag. It is unclear why the identities of those people have not been established. The requests for that have been sent by the defense, but they have not been satisfied", - Stefanovich told Voice of America.

Legitimacy of the process as a mirror of authorities’ legitimacy

Matthew Rozhansky, Deputy Director for Russia and Eurasia at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. believes that the trial of suspected terrorists should be broken down into two levels. At first, the analyst argues, we must take into account the legitimacy of the state apparatus in the country, and at second, we need to pay attention to the details and nuances of this particular case.

"If we examine the legitimacy of the entire state of Belarus after the events of December 19, 2010, it has some questions – Rozhansky told a Voice of America correspondent. In this context, the trial is also political at its core. However, it is political not in terms of persecution of regime’s opponents, but in terms of the authorities’ defense reaction, as well as their attempts to demonstrate to the Belarusian population the monopoly on safety in the country. Suffice it to recall that shortly after the capture of the alleged perpetrators Lukashenko rewarded investigators and some officials and said the crime was solved."

"And here we gradually come to the second part of my analysis”, – continues Rozhansky. – “Some of the details of the case, in particular, the fact that the intelligence services of Belarus could not catch these guys for years, and then suddenly arrested them immediately after the explosions in the Minsk subway, makes us very cautious here. To be honest, I find this hard to believe."

The theory of authorities demonstrating their monopoly on safety in the country, as well as regime’s crackdown on some of its senior ranking officials who have gained political leverage in recent years was expanded in the latest commentary by former KGB colonel Vladimir Borodach.  In an interview to TV channel "Belsat" the retired special forces brigade commander compared April’s metro blast with an explosion in 2008, which took place during the celebration of Independence Day in Minsk.

That incident was the reason for the resignation of the Secretary of the Security Council Viktor Sheiman, which, as many believe, was Lukashenko’s right hand.

"The incident has put an end to the staff reshuffling of the special services. Alexander Lukashenko has done it for his own safety in order to avoid nomenclatural coup d’état. After that explosion Alexander Lukashenko said that the head of the Security Council did not control the situation because he was not present on the spot at the time of celebration. Viktor Lukashenko [Alexander Lukashenko’s son], who is in charge of the Belarusian special services today, doesn’t surround himself with strong competitors "- said Borodach to Belsat. “

What is written in stone...

Meanwhile, Belarusian human rights activist Lyudmila Gryaznova, who attended the Konovalov and Kovalev court hearings, is still outraged that the main evidence against the suspects are still based on a confession the young men made during the preliminary investigation.

"The fact of the matter is that Konovalov gave those confessions, as he told the court, after a physical impact by the police. One should also remember the very strange behavior of Konovalov during the hearing. He was a pale, completely unemotional man who could not form a coherent sentence. As for Kovalev, in court, he also said that he had given evidence against Konovalov because he was threatened with a death penalty. However, realizing his mistake later, he retracted his words. I do not understand why the court refused to take into account these statements, "- observed Gryaznova.

Article originally published (in Russian):


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