Show Trial of Alleged Belarusian Terrorists
Every month of this year was filled with stories from Belarus about predominantly closed trials of political opposition activists, rally participants, human rights defendants, and journalists. This week’s show trial seems different.
In the court cage are Vladislav Konovalov and Dmitry Kovalyov, suspected in the Minsk subway bombing on April 11, which left 15 people dead and 200 wounded. Konovalov pleaded guilty and acknowledged committing four other terrorist attacks since 2005. Kovalyov, his alleged accomplice, withdrew his earlier confession. However, while unprecedented in its own right, the trial shares some features with many other Belarus trials.
To be sure, Kovalyov and Konovalov did get the right to a public hearing unlike many political defendants. By law the content of a trial can be withheld only to avoid revealing state secrets or to protect privacy in cases of rape and offenses committed by minors, but the Belarusian authorities like to sue the opponents of the regime behind closed doors to avoid public scrutiny. This trial was open to the public, perhaps to demonstrate the prowess of Belarus security services or to divert attention from the economic crisis. (Though one cannot help wondering how two young Belarusians, teenagers at the time of first alleged violation, were able to evade the KGB for so many years.)
Like most other Belarusians in the hands of the domestic justice system, however, Kovalyov and Konovalov were denied the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, which is crucial for ensuring a fair trial, and could have been pressured into confession.
Article 16 of the Belarus Criminal Procedure Code states that anyone accused of a crime “is considered innocent until his guilt has been proved in the way provided in this code and until a court judgment has come into effect.” This was not the case for Konovalov and Kovaliov, who in multiple statements by various and sunder officials were branded as terrorists since April. On September 15, the Belarusian official TV channel announced the trial by naming them “the first terrorists in Belarus”.
The TV channel suggested Konovalov’s confession meant that all those criticizing the trial were defending terrorists by attempting to make them into the regime victims. However, forced confessions are extracted on a regular basis in Belarus, and Konovalov and Kovaliov were hardly exceptions. One can even feel sorry for the investigators charged with solving the crime as they must have been under a no less intense pressure from the government. They succeeded, as the President announced that the suspects confessed only days after the attack. At any rate, coercion could well explain why Kovalyov asked to withdraw the evidence as “delivered under pressure”. He also said he was afraid of being executed.
According to independent TV channel Belsat, the eloquent prosecutor called Kovalyov’s actions a “conscious resistance to society, a willingness to commit a crime, actions based on fake superiority, and a conscious terrorizing of society and destruction of public order”. With such hefty accusations, Kovalyov is likely to receive a death sentence if convicted.
And unlike all criminals in Europe and the post-Soviet region, he stands a strong chance of being executed. Belarus is the only European country that did not abolish or impose a moratorium on capital punishment. Among the petitions to the court this week there was one asking to postpone the trial until the abolition of the death penalty.