A landmark trial opens Tuesday in Switzerland of a former member of an elite Belarusian police unit allegedly behind the disappearances of political opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko nearly a quarter century ago.
Yury Garavsky, 44, will appear in court in the northeastern Swiss canton of St. Gallen, accused of having participated in the enforced disappearances in 1999 of three major political opponents of Lukashenko.
Former interior minister Yury Zakharenko vanished in May that year, and in September, former deputy prime minister Viktor Gonchar and his close friend, the businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, also disappeared.
The case is unusual in that Garavsky gave a sensational interview to German media in 2019 stating that he had been a member of the Belarusian interior ministry’s SOBR special forces unit that he said had executed the three missing opponents 20 years earlier.
The case is also unprecedented, as it marks the first time a Belarusian national will stand trial for enforced disappearance on the basis of so-called universal jurisdiction, which allows the prosecution of certain grave crimes, regardless of where they took place.
It also will reportedly be the first time the alleged offence of enforced disappearance is tried in Switzerland.
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.”
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.