Two Belarusian men who were sentenced to death in a dubious trial last year may already have been executed, after it emerged that President Alexander Lukashenko has denied them their last chance of a pardon.
Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov were found guilty of bombing the Minsk metro system in April last year, a terrorist attack that killed 15 and injured 200, in a trial that observers say was deeply flawed. Belarus is the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty.
The two men were hoping that Mr Lukashenko, who has been dubbed, “the last dictator in Europe,” would exercise his presidential pardon, but late on Wednesday evening Belarusian television announced that he had declined to pardon the men “due to the extreme danger and particularly awful consequences for society of the crimes that they committed”.
Mr Lukashenko has led the country since 1994 and won an election in December 2010 that observers said was rigged. Hundreds were arrested in the ensuing mass protests, and two of the opposition candidates are still in jail for inciting the protests.
The metro bomb came in April last year, just a few months after the election, and initially, Mr Lukashenko suggested that it might have been linked to the country’s beleaguered opposition, suggesting that the attack was linked to “too much democracy”. In the end the court heard that Kovalyov and Konovalov, an electrician and a lathe operator both aged 25, acted alone. Their goal, they said in confessions, was the rather unconvincing “destabilisation of the political situation of Belarus”, a phrase taken straight out of the country’s legal code. Neither of the pair had any history of being part of radical political groups.
Independent observers of the trial said it was possible that one or both of the young men had been involved in the blast in some way, but the idea that they acted alone was implausible. The two men’s convictions were based mainly on confessions they gave during interrogation. Konovalov did not speak at all during the trial, while Kovalyov retracted his confession and said he had been tortured during the process.
Executions in Belarus are carried out by a single bullet to the back of the head, and the families of the condemned are not informed of the date. Kovalyov and Konovalov may now be killed at any moment, and sources in Minsk said yesterday that it was possible the executions had already taken place.
Kovalyov’s mother, Lyubov Kovalyova, said yesterday in Minsk that the KGB jail where her son was previously being held say they no longer hold a prisoner by his name. She is holding out hope that he is still alive and said she would write to Mr Lukashenko again begging for clemency.
The decision not to pardon the men comes as relations between Belarus and the EU have fallen to an unprecedented low, with all EU nations withdrawing their ambassadors from the country last month. Even as the EU attempts to put pressure on Belarus, however, Russia is stepping in to fill the gap. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said yesterday, after meeting his Belarusian counterpart, that Moscow was ready to offer Belarus support in every sphere. “The question is not just of military-technical cooperation, but more overarching intergovernmental cooperation,” said Mr Rogozin. “I can tell you one thing – we will not let anyone upset our Belarusian colleagues.”
Despite Russia’s backing, there has been international outcry over the death sentence. “Belarus has a flawed justice system and routinely flouts international fair trial standards, increasing the risk of a miscarriage of justice and of executing an innocent person,” said Amnesty International after the original verdict. When the judge read out his verdict there were howls of laughter and disbelief in the courtroom, as many of those who had sat through the whole trial said that the facts of the case had been distorted. The European Parliament called on Mr Lukashenko to commute the sentence, and independent polls inside Belarus suggest that around half of the population do not believe the verdict is fair.
None of this had any effect in the final reckoning, with an anchor on state television breaking the news that Mr Lukashenko would not pardon the duo late on Wednesday night.