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Belarus: The 2011 Minsk Metro Explosion – A ‘Hall of Mirrors’

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Vladislav Kovalev and Dmitry Konovalov – the men convicted and sentenced to death for their actions surrounding the April 2011 explosion in a Minsk subway station (GV coverage here and here) – have been executed despite international appeals to Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko for clemency.

Writing for The Telegraph, Andrew Osborn referred to Belarus as ‘Europe's last dictatorship’ when he provided details of the explosion, which claimed the lives of 15 people and injured hundreds.

Controversy surrounding the prosecution of Mr. Kovalev and Mr. Konovalov takes on two major themes – 1) The existence of the death penalty, as Belarus is the only European nation that still executes prisoners, and 2) the integrity of the prosecution of these men.

Flowers at the entrance to the Minsk metro station where the blast occurred on April 11, 2011. Photo by IVAN URALSKY, copyright © Demotix (12/04/11).

Just days after the explosion, The Economist posted in its blog a variety of theories about who could have been responsible:

In other countries, the finger of suspicion for the latest bomb would point immediately to Islamist terrorists. But they seem a highly unlikely culprit. Belarus has stayed clear of Russia's war in Chechnya, so attracts no jihadist ire for that. […]

It is hard to see why anyone in the mainstream opposition would be behind the outrage. It does not destabilise the regime. It would carry huge risks to the perpetrators. And it would be completely out of character. […]

A slighly more plausible candidate would be an extremist movement. Belarus has no real tradition of political radicalism. Russia has skinheads, persecutors of ethnic minorities and even neo-Nazis (puzzling: do they think they are übermenschen or untermenschen?). Such groups have minor offshoots in Belarus. Perhaps one such is showing off its abilities, for purposes of its own.

A Belarusian outfit called the “White Legion” was linked to the 2008 bombings and may have had a hand in two earlier explosions in 2005. But nobody knows much about it. Some even doubt it exists. […]

Splits within the regime are a possibility. The arrest in December 2010 of Igor Azarenok, the air-force chief, remains a mystery, and may be resented by his friends. Some analysts posit the existence of rival factions of “young wolves” and “old wolves” (the former friends of Mr Lukashenka's son Viktar, the others old KGB men).

Another analysis involves a hardline faction determined to push Belarus further towards autocracy and away from the West. […]

Such secret internal machinations can of course explain almost anything. But it would be nice to have some evidence. In this case little exists.

The post concluded by emphasizing that no real evidence had been produced, as it likened the case to a ‘hall of mirrors':

The result is a hall of mirrors: did the authorities let off a bomb hoping to discredit the opposition? Or did the opposition do it in the belief that the authorities would take the blame? Or was it the Russians, for some conspiracy theorists the all-purpose malefactors? Did the regime do it in order to highlight the threat from “extremists”, or in the hope of pinning blame on outsiders? Or was it NATO: after all, the wicked Westerners have bombed Libya, so why not Belarus? The explanations become steadily more absurd and inconclusive.

The only hard fact so far is that the bombing was a professional job, callously executed. Mr Lukashenka took his usual fatherly line, attending the scene of the blast with his six-year-old son (his companion in almost all public appearances).

In November 2011, Death Penalty Blog quoted an article found in the Independent, which illuminated the controversy surrounding the investigation into Mr. Konovalov and Mr. Kovalyov:

Police quickly arrested Konovalov and Kovalyov, however, and the former confessed to making the bomb and detonating it, while the latter admitted he knew his friend's plans and did nothing to stop him. The pair also admitted to a number of smaller attacks. Konovalov said that he carried out the attacks “to destabilise the situation in the Republic of Belarus” and because he disagreed with Mr Lukashenko's policies, but the bizarrely stilted admission, which mirrors an official legal definition, left many suspicious, as did the fact that Konovalov appeared to be entirely apolitical.

During the two-month trial, Kovalyov has said he only implicated his friend after being pressured by investigators, and Konovalov has said nothing. Besides the confessions, the prosecutors have offered little substantial evidence against the two men.

Although the verdict has not yet been delivered, Mr Lukashenko has already publicly rewarded officials for solving the case, and state-controlled media have frequently referred to the two men on trial as “terrorists”.

Mr. Kovalyov's mother took an active role in public efforts to exonerate her son. Through Change.org, she set up a multi-lingual online form enabling netizens to petition a variety of European foreign affairs officials:

I am writing you on behalf of Lyubou Kavalyova, a mother of Uladzislau Kavalyou. On November 30th, her son together with Dzmitry Kanavalau was convicted to the death penalty by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus. […]

I joined this campaign, because I believe the two men cannot be sent to death, until they are proven guilty. […]

I am writing you also on behalf of Belarusian and international human rights groups and many victims of the attack, who say the trial is unjust and that the Supreme Court has made a mistake sentencing the two men to death. […]

Thus, I am writing to you to ask only two things: please take a stand on this issue publicly, please condemn the death penalty in Belarus. Please write to the Belarusian authorities and demand not to execute Uladzislau Kavalyou and Dzmitry Kanavalau, but instead to start a new investigation! […]

Petitioners left comments explaining why they felt moved to take action in defense of these young men.

Olga Nikonova [ru]:

They aren't guilty!!!! The presumption of innocence states – a man is innocent until proven guilty in a court. The court hasn't provided evidence!!!! […]

Iryna Lysenko [ru]:

I'm against the death penalty. History is full of situations where innocent people were executed. This case might be one of them. It must not be allowed to happen!

Dzmitry Shymkin [en]:

Everybody knows that this process is farce and everybody knows who is real organizator of that murder.

Voice of America Blog announced on November 30 that the death penalty had been handed down and that international human rights groups continued to call into question the legitimacy of the investigation:

The judge said Wednesday that Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov present an extreme danger to society and thus require the ultimate punishment — death by execution. […]

Rights activists had called on authorities in the former Soviet republic not to impose the death sentence. An Amnesty International researcher expressed shock at, in her words, the “cynicism” of the judgment.

Amnesty says it has concerns about the investigation, namely the speed with which the case was announced resolved and that the two suspects confessed to not only masterminding the April metro bombing but others as well.

Voices of Russia Blog published a letter to the editor a few days later entitled “Apparently, the West is Against Terrorism Only When it Suits its Own Agenda,” which supported the prosecution of Mr. Konovalov and Mr. Kovalyov:

Apparently, the West’s against terrorism only when it suits its own agenda. Despite the overwhelming physical and circumstantial evidence against the Minsk Metro Bombers, including a video tape of one of the perps planting the bomb, the Western media’s already screaming that the trial was unfair. They’re even stating that the Byelorussian government planted the bomb in order to create a situation of fear. At this point, I believe it’s a waste of time even answering the anti-Belarus and anti-Lukashenko ravings in the West. No matter what we say, no matter what evidence we present, they’ll continue to demonise Belarus and President Lukashenko. […]

In recent days there have been unverified reports that one or both men have already been executed. RT.com reported that Mr. Kovalev’s family received a letter signed by the Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court stating that their son had been shot on March 15. What is certain is that if these men have been executed, their families received no advance warning.

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