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A Bloody Show of Force in Belarus: The Suspicious Trial of Kanavalau and Kavalyou

Posted on the 22 March 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
A bloody show of force in Belarus: The suspicious trial of Kanavalau and Kavalyou

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (l) used to enjoy closer relations with Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev (r). Photo credit:

This post, by Anna Kuleszewicz, first appeared on New Eastern Europe.

In the US state of Virginia, the average period from a death penalty sentence to execution is eight years. In Belarus, the regime needed just a few months to kill two friends convicted of terrorist attacks on the Minsk metro. The burial site is unknown and we don’t know what happened to the bodies. We only know that these people were executed.

On April 11, 2011 at 17:56 in the Minsk Kastrychnitskaya metro station, a bomb explodes. Fifteen people are killed, 387 injured. On November 30, 2011, the Supreme Court finds Dzmitry Kanavalau guilty of perpetrating the terrorist attacks; his friend, Uladzislau Kavalyou, is found guilty of aiding terrorism. They are sentenced to death. They had known each other since childhood.

On March 16, 2012, the mother of one of the convicted men, Lubou Kavalyou, receives a letter confirming that her son has been executed. Rumours spread that Dzmitry Kanavalau has been shot dead too. On March 17, 2012, Belarusian state television informs the public that both 25-year-olds had been executed.

The last such place
Belarus is now the only country in Europe where the death penalty is still carried out. It is also the only country in Europe ruled by a dictator. This alone provokes doubts about the fairness of court trials. The trial of Kanavalau and Kavalyou raises many questions. The news about capturing the perpetrators of the attack was announced very quickly; in fact, a little too quickly.

But, of course, the Belarusian justice system acts very quickly and “efficiently”, as it is so capably run by Alexander Lukashenko. He cannot allow unruly elements to destabilise the country, and if someone dares to take such a step, he or she will be severely punished. The question is: How many of the numerous people sentenced to death (the exact number is unknown) were, in fact, innocent?

Guilty, innocent, confessed under pressure?
Kanavalau pleaded guilty and refused to make a statement in court, his confession was read out by the judge. He pleaded guilty to all the charges. But society knows many methods of coercion. Making someone, especially a young person, sign a confession is an easy task for a specialist.

In his final statement in court, Kavalyou claimed he was innocent. He also denied Kanavalau’s guilt. He is also supposed to have said to his mother while she was visiting him in jail that Kanavalau pleaded guilty under pressure from law enforcement officers.

The doubts and violations of due process make it difficult to believe that the two friends really committed the crime. What’s more, it is difficult to believe in a fair trial in such a country as Belarus. Kavalyou and Kanavalau where executed within four months of being arrested. Was it a fight for justice? No, it was a show of force and power of Alexander Lukashenko.

Jean-Claude Mignon, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said that Kanavalau probably confessed under pressure. The UN Human Rights Committee, petitioned by Kavalyou’s sister and mother, asked the Belarusian government not to carry out the sentence. Various human rights organisations condemned the sentence, as did the European Union. But no further actions were taken.

Struggle to the end
Much more poignant and dramatic was the struggle of Lubou Kavalyou for the life of her son. She begged for help,  appealed to President Lukashenko. It would have been enough for him to say one word and the two 25-year-olds would have been saved by a single click of his fingers, just like magic. But Lukashenko was relentless.

Lubou will never learn the precise date of her son’s death. She was only informed in a letter that the sentence had been carried out. Under Belarusian law, she will never be allowed to take custody of his body, and she will never learn where he was buried. But she wants to fight for it. She would like to bury him with dignity. Osama Bin Laden, an unquestioned tyrant and terrorist, was treated with respect after death for the traditions of his religion. These two young people, whose guilt is very doubtful, did not deserve such respect in the eyes of the Belarusian state. The government fears that the burial site would become a kind of place of worship and they would be regarded as martyrs. No, the regime cannot allow it.

People gather in the corridors of apartment blocks in Vitebsk where the families of Kanavalau and Kavalyou live. They bring flowers and candles, while the police patrol the streets. It is even rumoured that the police arrested some people during the memorial. Kavalyou’s photograph, banded with a black ribbon, was placed in the Minsk metro. In just a few minutes a plain-clothes policeman took it away.

The investigation itself requires an investigation
The guilt of Kanavalau and Kavalyou cannot really be ascertained; definitely not on the basis of the Belarusian investigation and trial. The two executed men knew the truth but they took it with them to an unknown, anonymous grave. Representatives of one or two state institutions also probably know the truth too, but it is doubtful they will ever reveal it.

We could say that the investigation and trial of Kanavalau and Kavalyou itself requires an investigation and trial. The system of justice in a dictatorship will always raise suspicions and doubts. The trial of Kanavalau and Kavalyou shows that the system works “dynamically, quickly and efficiently”; this is what the public is supposed to believe. People are made to feel safe, as every criminal will be convicted, or intimidated, as needed.

But how can you feel safe when justice itself is just a show of force ordered by one of the criminals? And a very bloody one at that.

Anna Kuleszewicz is a student of Eastern Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. While she specialises in the region, her main interest in Belarus. She assists in editing the web site and is a translator from Russian into Polish.

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