A landmark trial of a former member of an elite Belarusian police unit accused of being behind the disappearances of political opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko almost a quarter century ago begins in Switzerland on Tuesday.
Yury Garavsky, 44, will appear in court in the canton of St. Gallen in northern Switzerland, accused of taking part in the forced disappearances of three significant political opponents of Lukashenko in 1999.
Former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko went missing in May of that year, while former Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Gonchar and his close friend, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, went missing in September.
The case is unique in that Garavsky gave a shocking interview to German media in 2019 claiming to be a member of the Belarusian interior ministry’s SOBR special forces squad, which he said assassinated the three missing opponents 20 years before.
The case is particularly historic in that it is the first time a Belarusian person will be tried for enforced disappearance under the doctrine of so-called universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of some serious crimes regardless of where they occurred.
It will also be the first time the accused crime of compelled disappearance is tried in Switzerland, according to reports.
In 2021, after confirming that Garavsky had settled in St. Gallen, TRIAL International, a non-governmental organisation that fights against impunity for war crimes, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Belarusian rights group Viasna filed a criminal complaint with the regional prosecutor.
Families of the victims filed a separate complaint on the same day.
“This trial will be historic,” TRIAL International senior legal advisor Vony Rambolamanana said in a statement late last month when the trial date was announced.
“This case will set a precedent. The prosecution of such crimes in Switzerland will serve as an example worldwide.”
Viasna, whose founder Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski is jailed in Belarus, agreed.
“With this first-ever prosecution of an alleged member of Lukashenko’s hit squad, we are sending a strong signal,” Viasna lawyer Pavel Sapelko said in the statement.
“Justice for international crimes can and will be delivered, regardless of state borders or time elapsed since the crimes have been committed.”
Severin Walz, a lawyer representing the victims’ relatives, meanwhile described the case as “a decisive step forward in the fight against impunity for the crimes committed in Belarus”.
“My clients’ greatest hope is to obtain certainty about the fate of their fathers through a judgement delivered by a due judicial proceeding.”
‘No safe haven’
Ilya Nuzov, who heads FIDH’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said the trial could have even broader significance.
It “might not only secure a conviction for one of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes,” he said in the statement.
“It could also establish facts which could later be used to go after those who had ordered … the crime, including Lukashenko himself.”
A group of independent United Nations experts also issued a statement last week hailing the upcoming trial as a “fundamental step towards justice and reparation for victims”.
It shows that “universal jurisdiction is a solid bulwark against impunity”, sending “a strong message that there shall … be no safe haven for perpetrators of gross human rights violations”.
Belarusians have long faced harsh repression at the hands of strongman Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994.
He was widely accused of falsifying the results of the 2020 election to give himself a sixth term in office, and subsequently crushed the massive demonstrations that followed.
Belarus, which has become even more isolated since Lukashenko allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory as a launchpad for its Ukraine offensive last year, currently counts over 1,500 political prisoners, according to Viasna.