July 22, 2024

A former member of a Belarusian security services unit on trial for the disappearance of three prominent opponents of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko in 1999 has been acquitted by a Swiss court after judges ruled his testimony was unreliable, according to a decision released on Thursday.

The decision dealt a blow to the relatives of the victims and their lawyers, who saw the trial as a milestone in the effort to deliver judicial accountability on behalf of the three Belarusian opposition leaders who vanished nearly 25 years ago.

Severin Walz, a lawyer for the daughters of two of the victims, said he planned to appeal. “They are very disappointed, a bit shocked by the outcome,” Mr. Walz said after the verdict.

The case came to light after the former security services member, Yuri Harauski, now 44, arrived in Switzerland in 2018 seeking asylum, claiming that he had been the target of an assassination attempt and that his life was in danger.

Mr. Harauski had also admitted to being a part of a special unit in the Belarusian Ministry of Interior known as SOBR. He said the unit had abducted and killed the three men: Yuri Zakharenko, a former interior minister; Viktor Gonchar, a former deputy prime minister; and Anatoly Krasovsky, a pro-opposition businessman.

Mr. Harauski was tried on a charge of enforced disappearance in connection with the disappearances.

Their disappearance had helped crush resistance to Mr. Lukashenko’s increasingly authoritarian rule. An investigation by the Council of Europe — the continent’s main institution governing human rights — concluded in 2004 that the disappearances had been covered up “at the highest level” by the Belarusian government.

In news interviews, and in testimony in court, Mr. Harauski described in detail how the eight-member SOBR unit had snatched the men off the streets of Minsk, the Belarusian capital, and drove them to two Interior Ministry bases, where the unit’s commander shot each man twice in the back.

The court said that it must be assumed that the three men had been murdered, and did not dispute Mr. Harauski’s claim to have served in SOBR. But the panel of three district court judges who heard the case concluded in a written statement released on Thursday that because of discrepancies in his testimony, his participation in the disappearance of the men could not “be considered legally proven.”

The judges suggested that Mr. Harauski might have exaggerated his role to support his asylum claim.

The court also questioned the legal basis for charging him with the crime of enforced disappearance, saying, “The defendant was not part of an arrest or kidnapping squad, but of an actual hit squad.”

Mr. Walz, the lawyer, said, however, that the judges “seemed to lack a comprehensive understanding of the crime of enforced disappearance.”

Human rights groups said the court proceedings had shed light on the brutal tactics still used by Belarusian security services, including SOBR, to suppress dissent, which flared again in 2020 after mass protests against the results of presidential election widely dismissed as fraudulent and in which Mr. Lukashenko declared victory.

A United Nations human rights official told the Human Rights Council in Geneva last week that about 1,500 people were imprisoned in Belarus on politically motivated charges as part of the government’s “campaign of violence and repression” against opponents real or perceived.

“Detainees, both men and women, are subjected to torture and ill-treatment, including beatings, overcrowding, sleep deprivation, denial of access to medical care, repeated solitary confinement and unsafe or exploitative compulsory labor,” said Nada Al-Nashif, the U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights.

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