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Belarus29 April 2004

Council of Europe calls for an independent investigation into Zavadski disappearance

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on 28 April adopted a resolution urging the Belarus authorities to open an independent investigation into the disappearance of four opponents, including the journalist Dmitri Zavadski. It also called for the prosecutor-general Viktor Sheiman, accused of being behind the disappearances, to be dismissed. Resolution 1371 further calls for charges to be laid against Sheiman, head of the National Security Council at the time, Yuri Sivakov, then interior minister and Dmitri Pavlichenko, commander of a special police unit, so that their implication in the disappearances can be investigated. It also urges an investigation into the responsibility of several top officials in obstructing the course of justice to try to protect those really responsible for the crimes. PACE decided to break off all political contact with Belarus until the independent investigation was opened.

Reporters Without Borders and the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ) voiced shock today at the decision to close the investigation into the disappearance of journalist Dmitri Zavadski although the Council of Europe’s special rapporteur recently spoke of serious suspicions about official involvement in the disappearance and an attempt to cover this up.

Zavadski’s wife, Svetlana Zavadskaya, was told of the decision in a letter at the beginning of April which said the investigation had been closed because "the disappeared individual has not been found."

Reporters Without Borders and the BAJ have asked prosecutor-general Viktor Sheyman to write to the Zavadski family giving the reason why the official in charge of the case, Ivan Branshel, decided it should be closed.

The two organisations also asked the prosecutor’s office to detail not only what actions were taken to find Zavadski but also what initially-envisaged investigative measures were not carried out and why.

Reporters Without Borders and the BAJ believe that the family has a right to information about two members of the interior ministry special services who were convicted of kidnapping Zavadski, in particular, whether they admitted their guilt and whether they provided information about Zavadski’s fate after he was abducted and where his body was buried.

The family also does not know whether the accomplices to the kidnapping - mentioned in the trial - have been identified and whether they have provided information.

Reporters Without Borders and the BAJ also deplore the KGB’s failure to respond to the request made by Svetlana Zavadskaya and the wives of three other disappeared persons - two government opponents and a businessman - for proceedings to be initiated against senior officials suspected of being linked to their disappearance.

Zavadski disappeared on 7 July 2000 at Minsk airport. He was President Lukashenko’s personal cameraman until he resigned from the government-run TV station in 1996 went to work for the Russian TV channel ORT. He was imprisoned with an ORT colleague for two months in 1997 after reporting the existence of gaps in Belarus’ security along its border with Lithuania.

On 16 July 2002, the Belarus supreme court upheld a life sentence on the former head of the interior ministry’s special units, Valery Ignatovich, and one of his subordinates, Maxim Malik, for the kidnapping of Zavadski and for the murder of five other people. According to the authorities, Ignatovich decided to kill Zavadski because he felt Zavadski was referring to him in an interview he gave in 2000 to the daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta in which he said he met Belarussian citizens in Chechnya fighting on the side of the Chechen separatists. The trial did not reveal the exact circumstances of Zavadski’s kidnapping or who was behind it.

The office of the prosecutor-general had previously decided on 27 February 2003 to close the investigation in Zavadski’s disappearance. But then it reopened it on 10 December 2003 without any explanation other than "the need to pursue the enquiries."

Council of Europe special rapporteur Cristos Pourgourides referred in a preliminary report on 27 January 2004 to serious suspicions about the involvement of three officials in four disappearances, including Zavadski’s. The officials named in this report are Viktor Sheyman, the prosecutor-general since November 2000 and head of the national security council at the time of Zavadski’s disappearance; Yuri Sivakov, who was interior minister at the time; and Dmitri Pavlichenko, the commander of a police special unit. Pourgourides said: "steps were taken at the highest level of the state to actively cover up the truth about the circumstances of the disappearances."

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