'My husband phoned to say he was going to the sauna...we never saw him again'

Anatoly Krasovsky is one of many Belarus dissidents to have vanished under Europe's 'last dictatorship'. Jerome Taylor reports

Irina Krasovskaya last saw her husband on the afternoon of 16 September 1999. The couple shared an apartment in the Belarus capital Minsk and had agreed to spend the evening hosting a belated birthday celebration for Irina with coffee and cake.

"It had been a busy week and we hadn't had the time to celebrate," she recalls. "My husband phoned to say that he was going to go to a sauna with a friend before coming over to the apartment, so I packed his towels and brought them to his office. I went home to prepare the cakes but we never heard from him again".

Irina's husband, Anatoly Krasovsky, was a successful businessman and a close friend of Viktar Hanchar, a prominent opposition politician who had become a fierce critic of the Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko. As the pair drove back from the sauna down Fabrichnaya Street, their car was forced to a halt and they were dragged into the street; their bodies have never been found. They are just two of a host of dissidents who have disappeared under a regime which has long held the dubious title of being Europe's last dictatorship.

A decade on and Mr Lukashenko's security services – which still use the KGB moniker – are back in action, stamping down on pro-democracy activists and arresting hundreds. Human rights groups have likened their trials to the kangaroo courts of the Soviet era. Belarus continues to be one of the West's worst human rights abusers and the only country in Europe which still carries out the death penalty. Yet many Belarus activists say it was the international community's failure to confront Mr Lukashenko's earlier abuses that have emboldened him.

"When the disappearances began Lukashenko crossed a moral line," says Mrs Krasovskaya, who has since fled to the United States with her two daughters. "The international community could have stopped him then but they didn't. Once he realised he would never be punished, Lukashenko knew he could do whatever he liked."

The disappearances had begun four months earlier with Yuri Zakharenko, a former minister of internal affairs who had a strong following among sections of the army and the KGB. In 1995 he had been dismissed by Mr Lukashenko and had joined the opposition. He had slowly built up his powerbase until, on 7 May 1999, he vanished. The last people to see him alive say the 59-year-old was bundled into a car just a few hundred yards from his home.

The next year Mr Lukashenko's former personal cameraman went missing. Dmitiri Zavadsky had documented the president's rise to power between 1994 and 1997. He had then left to work for Russian Public Television and had fallen out of favour with the regime after a series of unflattering reports on Belarus, including footage of Belarus nationals fighting on both sides in Russia's war in Chechnya. On 7 July 2000 he drove to Minsk's airport but never arrived. Two special forces soldiers were convicted in a closed court of kidnapping him. But few outside the regime believe the pair had anything to do with the crime.

Scores more opponents have vanished or died in disputed circumstances, but the disappearances of Mr Zakharenko, Mr Krasovsky and Mr Hanchar in particular had one glaring similarity which – thanks to the KGB's obsession with paper records – strongly suggested that senior elements within the state police were responsible.

On both 7 May and 16 September 1999, a PB 9 pistol was checked out of the SIZO-1 prison in central Minsk. The pistol, which carried the serial code PO57C, was used exclusively for executions, which in Belarus are carried out with a shot to the back of the head. No one was officially executed in SIZO-1 on those days.

We know the pistol was checked out because Aleh Alkayev, who was then head of SIZO-1 and in charge of the unit responsible for carrying out the death penalty, fled Belarus with a dossier of evidence. After he arrived in Germany, information began to leak out which alleged that a unit led by the special forces veteran Colonel Dmitri Pavlichenko carried out assassinations and kidnappings of prominent dissidents on behalf of the regime.

Although the authorities in Belarus denied the charges and did little to investigate the disappearances, the Council of Europe conducted its own investigation. The report, by the Cypriot investigator Christos Pourgourides, was damning.

"[I] believe that steps were taken at the highest level to cover up the true background of the disappearances," he wrote. "And [I] suspect that senior officials in the State may themselves be involved in these disappearances."

Mr Pourgourides called on the Belarus authorities to open a criminal investigation into Colonel Pavlichenko, Viktor Sheiman, who was then prosecutor general, and Yuri Sivakov, then interior minister. All three are still key members of the Lukashenko regime.

Dmitri Zavadsky's wife, Svetlana, who still lives in Belarus, believes the full truth of what has happened to Belarus' missing dissidents will only be revealed if the international community forces Mr Lukashenko's hand.

"[We] went through all the domestic legal procedures, but we have never had an impartial independent investigation or punishment of the people who are implicated in the abduction and murder of a journalist," she said. "I have long been waiting for assistance from the international community in punishing the guilty and those who ordered this inhuman crime."

Oleg Bebenin's Suspicious Death

*In recent years Mr Lukashenko's agents have resorted to more subtle ways of intimidating and silencing opponents, largely through the country's tightly controlled courts. But there are some who believe that murder is still a weapon used by the KGB.

Last September, prominent web journalist Oleg Bebenin was found dead in his home. Campaigning for December's presidential elections had just got under way and Mr Bebenin's website, Charter 97, was one of the most vocal rallying points for pro-democracy activists.

The official coroner's report said that the 36-year-old had hanged himself, but many of his friends questioned whether someone in his position – with no history of depression and an election campaign to cover – would have committed suicide.

Mike Harris, a researcher with the UK-based free speech group Index on Censorship, was due to meet Mr Bebenin the day after his death.

"As I flew in he was found hanged," he recalls. "There are serious discrepancies between the official coroner's report and what eyewitnesses, including presidential candidate – and Oleg's friend – Andrei Sannikov, saw at the scene. Oleg's funeral was surrounded by cars filled with KGB officers."

The eyewitnesses who discovered the body told Amnesty International that they saw bruises on Mr Bebenin's body and dirt on his hands, suggesting he may have been involved in a struggle. There were two empty bottles of Belarusian Balsam, a high alcohol content liqueur, in the living room of the dacha, yet friends said the reporter never drank Belarusian Balsam. He was wearing a jacket, left no suicide note and had texted two friends that day to arrange a visit to the cinema that evening.

Mr Harris finds it hard to contend with the fact that many of those who attended Mr Bebenin's funeral are now in prison following the latest crackdown.

"At the funeral I met many brave members of the political opposition," he says. "So many of these people like Andrei Sannikov, Dzmitry Bandarenka, Natalia Radzina, Aliaksandr Atroshchankau who attended the funeral are now in prison, awaiting trial or under house arrest."