A former member of the Belarusian special security forces unit overseen by Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president, is to stand trial in Switzerland next month over the forced disappearance of political opponents in the 1990s.
Human rights groups said the “historic” trial was a “decisive step forward” in the fight against exemption from punishment for crimes committed in the country, which could pave the way for future prosecutions of Belarusian officials.
Yuri Harauski, a former member of a military unit known as SOBR and often referred to as “Lukashenko’s hit squad”, will face trial on the basis of universal jurisdiction on 19 and 20 September in the northern Swiss regional court of St Gallen for his involvement in the disappearances of three leading figures of the opposition in 1999.
The victims, who disappeared between May and September 1999, were Yury Zakharenka, the former minister of the interior; Viktar Hanchar, a former deputy prime minister during the early years of Lukashenko’s presidency; and Anatoly Krasouski, a businessman and close friend of Hanchar. Attempts by their families to obtain information from Belarusian authorities about their whereabouts have been blocked for years by police and security officials.
Their relatives’ case was taken up by the Geneva-based non-governmental organisation Trial International; Viasna, the Minsk-based human rights organisation; and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
Ilya Nuzov, head of FIDH in eastern Europe, said Harauski’s trial could have far-reaching consequences. “This could be a watershed moment for international justice for the Belarusian regime’s crimes,” he said.
“Harauski’s trial might not only secure a conviction for one of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes; it could also establish facts which could later be used to go after those who had ordered the commission of the crime, including Lukashenko himself.”
Lukashenko’s regime has come under increasing criticism for its crushing of opposition movements that intensified three years ago after a disputed election in 2020. Opposition figures have been persecuted at home and abroad, and those imprisoned in Belarus claim to have been tortured.
Harauski, an ex-convict, lives in St Gallen having applied for asylum in Switzerland in 2018, according to Belarusian monitors. He was highly vocal about his involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Lukashenko’s opponents in 1999, even making public confessions about them in media interviews. He has signalled his willingness to be tried for his involvement, but has expressed his wish to be tried in Switzerland and not in Belarus.
In an interview with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2019, Harauski said that those who disappeared had been punished for seeking the resignation of Lukashenko, and were abducted by members of SOBR, including himself, under the leadership of Dmitri Pavlichenko, the military unit’s head, who Harauski said had shot the victims. Harauski has said he knows where the three men were buried.
Pavel Sapelko, lawyer for the Minsk-based Viasna, welcomed the announcement that the trial would take place. “With this first ever prosecution of an alleged member of Lukashenko’s hit squad, we are sending a strong signal,” he said in a statement. “Justice for international crimes can and will be delivered, regardless of state borders or time elapsed since the crimes have been committed.
“Step by step we are making impunity impossible for international criminals.”
Philip Grant, executive director for Trial International, said the case would “send a huge signal”. It was the first time that a member of Lukashenko’s special forces would be brought to justice, he said, and the first time that a case of enforced disappearance had been brought before a court on the basis of universal jurisdiction, “so it’s going to set some very simple precedents”.
Earlier this week Swiss authorities announced that a former Algerian minister of defence, Khaled Nezzar, is to stand trial in the country on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity between 1992 and 1994, the early years of the Algerian civil war.
Last week, Switzerland issued an international arrest warrant for the extradition of Rifaat al-Assad, who is known as the “butcher of Hama” and is the uncle of the current Syrian president, in connection with war crimes committed in 1982.
Switzerland’s readiness to pursue such significant cases on the basis of universal jurisdiction is credited to its current attorney general, Stefan Blättler, who took office in 2021 pledging to apply the law to both national and international cases as long as evidence was solid. He was recently re-elected by parliament for a second term.
Lukashenko has strongly denied any involvement in the disappearance of the three men in 1999.
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