Europe's last executioner condemns two more to a bullet in the back of the head

Their trial for a subway bombing in Belarus raised as many questions as answers. But, amid claims of false confessions and to cries of disgust, two friends have been sentenced to death

Minsk

With his wiry frame clad in a blue shellsuit, a disengaged expression and cropped, mousy hair, Dmitry Konovalov looks more like a playground terrorist than a real one. But a court in Belarus yesterday decided that, together with his friend Vladislav Kovalyov, he was responsible for a series of very real crimes, the worst of which was the planning and execution of a bomb attack on the Minsk metro system in April this year, which killed 15 people and injured over 200. Amid gasps of shock and cries of disgust in the viewing gallery, the pair were sentenced to death.

It took Judge Alexander Fedortsov four hours to read out the verdict in Minsk's House of Justice yesterday. But rights activists, and even some of those who lost relatives in the bomb blast, have expressed their doubts about the way the case has been investigated. Neo-Soviet Belarus, under the rule of the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, is the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty. Kovalyov and Konovalov will be executed with a single bullet to the back of the head.

Konovalov, 25, a lathe operator, was found guilty of this year's metro blast, as well as several previous, smaller attacks stretching back a decade. Kovalyov, also 25, an electrician, was found guilty of aiding and abetting his childhood friend, and of not reporting his knowledge of upcoming attacks to the authorities. The prosecution failed to come up with a convincing motive for the terrorist acts. Konovalov wanted to "destabilise the situation in the Republic of Belarus", according to the legalese in his odd confession, but why he wanted to do so, nobody can say.

The case relied almost entirely on confessions from the two men, given during the preliminary investigation. Konovalov refused to utter a single word during the entire court hearing, while Kovalyov went back on his testimony. He said he had been told he would be let off lightly if he implicated his friend, and that he could hear Konovalov screaming from torture during the investigation, and did not want to suffer the same fate. When the case came to court, he claims, he could not stand by his false testimony any longer.

The hearing, which began in September, took place in a large hall resembling a school theatre, with the judge and lawyers seated on a stage. At the rear, the Soviet-style emblem of Belarus, featuring fat sheaves of wheat cradling a red star, was mounted on a shiny, crimped curtain. A dozen special forces soldiers stood at the front of the stage, while the defendants were manhandled into a metal cage, which was surrounded by armed policemen. Plain-clothed KGB agents wearing earpieces, black leather jackets, and pointy black shoes lurked in the aisles.

Without the confessions, much of the remaining evidence is circumstantial and full of holes, according to independent observers who have followed the trial. Many contradictions and missing links in the case were simply ignored by the judge. Time after time yesterday, when the judge stated that certain facts had been proved by the evidence, there were angry shouts from the hall. Later, people began sarcastically cackling with laughter at points that struck them as absurdly far removed from the reality of the case.

And then, suddenly, it wasn't funny any more. The judge finally got to the most important part, and sentenced both of the pair to "the most exceptional punishment – death". The defendants did not register any change in expression, but in the gallery, after a brief stunned silence, shouts of "Disgrace!" and "Butcher!" went up, aimed at the judge.

Not everyone was unhappy with the verdict. "Of course I'm happy, the only thing that would be better is if we could drag them out here right now and tear them to pieces, like my son was torn to pieces," said a woman whose 40-year-old son had died in the bombing. Other victims of the attack were less certain. "Everything about the whole process has been suspicious," said Ludmila Zhechko, who was injured in the blast. "I want to go to sleep at night and know that the right people have been caught. After this trial, I can't do that."

Those who had merely come out of curiosity to watch the trial had even stronger opinions. "I didn't know anything about our court system before, and I can hardly believe what I've seen," said one 34-year-old man who started attending the hearings after seeing a television news item about the case. "It's an utter disgrace for our country. They are just kids. Our state is killing children."

Yesterday evening, international organisations condemned the verdict. "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 John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International. There have also been accusations that President Lukashenko effectively ordered the court how to rule, by rewarding officials for solving the crime before the court had announced its verdict.

"The sentencing was not related to the materials of the case," said a tearful Lyubov Kovalyova on the steps of the courtroom after the hearing was over. "My son is not guilty. The whole case is fabricated." She said that she would appeal to Mr Lukashenko to pardon her son.

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