Zoom Image

Yuri Garawski arrives at the court in St. Gallen


Gian Ehrenzeller / EPO

In Switzerland, a man is on trial under the principle of universal jurisdiction for allegedly being involved in the disappearance and alleged murder of three opposition members in Belarus in 1999. According to Yuri Garavski, the contract for this was received by the Belarusian state. The case is being negotiated because the 45-year-old has incriminated himself – as part of his asylum application in Switzerland. In the event of a conviction, this would be the first time that the regime in Belarus has indirectly recorded before a court that the regime in Belarus is making opposition members disappear. The overview.

That's what it's all about

In 1999, three prominent dissidents disappeared without a trace in what is now Belarus. 20 years later, the asylum seeker Yuri Garawski first told Swiss officials and later selected media that the three missing people were dead and that he knew this because he had been involved in their murder. As a conscript in a Minsk military unit, he was recruited for the Belarusian special forces Sobr, whose official goal is to fight crime. According to Garvaski, on May 7, 1999, the Sobr Group, led by its founder Dmitry Pavlichenko, kidnapped former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenko. Pavlichenko is then said to have shot Zakharenko at a military training area.

In September of the same year, according to Garavski, the unit kidnapped the former head of the Central Election Commission, Viktor Gonchar, as well as Anatolo Krassovsky, a supporter of the opposition. Both were executed and buried in a forest. Again, Pavlichenko is said to have been in command and shot the men. Garawski claims to have received a total of 1500 dollars for the three murders.

Garavsky does not know who gave Pavlichenko the orders. At least that's what he told Deutsche Welle in 2019. But he thinks that Lukashenko knew about it. At the start of the trial, however, Garawski is said to have repeatedly said, according to the dpa news agency, that Lukashenko had ordered the murders. Garawski is said to have belonged to the unit until 2003.

That is why this case is so important

A guilty verdict would be the first verdict to be held in court that Lukashenko's authoritarian government, which is throwing opposition members in jail, is also murdering in order to retain power. Garawaski can only be punished if it is established that he acted on behalf of a political authority.

Conversely, this would mean that the regime of ruler Lukashenko is responsible for the disappearance of the opposition. "The trial is a strong signal to the people of Belarus and other countries that such atrocities will not go unpunished," said lawyer Benoit Meystre of the Geneva-based organization Trial International in the run-up to the trial. Trial International had brought the case to court together with the Belarusian human rights center Viasna.

The principle of universal jurisdiction

"It is the first time that such crimes in Belarus are at the center of a trial," trial lawyer Meystre told dpa. The fact that this is possible in a Swiss canton is due to the so-called principle of universal jurisdiction. Accordingly, national criminal law also applies to certain serious crimes that were not committed on one's own territory or by or against one's own citizens. In this case, we are talking about enforced disappearances, sanctioned in international law as a crime against humanity.

What does Garawski face if convicted?

Garawski is on trial in Switzerland for acceding to the international convention on protection against enforced disappearances in 2015. Its goal is to ensure that perpetrators can be held accountable anywhere in the world, regardless of the crime scene. Enforced disappearances can be punishable by up to 20 years in prison. According to the authorities, Garawski faces only three years in prison, of which only one year is to be executed.

Why does Garawski face the court?

Garawski fled to Switzerland in 2018 to seek asylum. A little later, he told his story for the first time. He also gave the authorities names, places and procedures. Details that only stakeholders can know. The only thing is that there is no evidence of this, as the »Neue Zürcher Zeitung« writes, which refers, among other things, to investigation reports and the indictment.

The court must now decide whether Garawski may have exaggerated his role in order to obtain asylum. The judge said Garawski had complained about the treatment and his accommodation in Switzerland. He criticized his "attitude of entitlement". Garawski's application for asylum was rejected. However, he is tolerated because he is threatened with arrest and death if he is deported in his home country.

In court, Garawski became entangled in contradictions in his testimony. "I didn't kill, just arrested," he says, in the words of the translator. »Why should I bear responsibility?« At the end of the evidence, he apologized. He deeply regrets his role, it said in a prepared statement. But he was only a small cog, later realized how reprehensible the deeds were, and considered it his moral duty not to remain silent any longer.

Were there similar allegations in Belarus?

The brutal methods of the Minsk regime have been denounced by opposition members and human rights organizations for many years. In the case of the three dissidents, a special investigator of the Council of Europe came to the conclusion in 2004 that the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior was behind the disappearance. What exactly happened, however, has not been able to clarify even this investigation.