A former member of the Belarus security services went on trial Tuesday in Switzerland over his role in the disappearances of prominent opposition leaders nearly 25 years ago, episodes that significantly strengthened President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko’s authoritarian grip on power.
The defendant, Yuri Harauski, a 44-year-old former soldier who lives in Switzerland, was arrested after he confessed to being part of a special operations unit known by its acronym, SOBR, run by the Belarus Ministry of the Interior, that he says abducted and killed the three men in 1999.
The men have never been found, and an investigation by the Belarusian government into their disappearances was closed in 2003 with no conclusion. The missing men are: a former interior minister, Yuri Zakharenko; an opposition politician, Viktor Gonchar; and a pro-opposition businessman, Anatoly Krasovsky. Mr. Harauski, who arrived in Switzerland and claimed asylum in 2018, has denied killing the victims. He was charged with the crime of enforced disappearance. Prosecutors have asked for a three-year jail sentence, of which two years would be suspended.
The case, presided over by a three-judge panel, is the first enforced-disappearance prosecution to be tried in Switzerland under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which provides for states to prosecute international crimes regardless of where they were committed, according to Benoit Meystre, a lawyer for Trial International, a Geneva-based human rights group that submitted one of the complaints that led to Mr. Harauski’s arrest.
It is also the first prosecution of enforced disappearance involving Belarus. If the court convicted Mr. Harauski, it would be “the first judicial recognition that the regime of Lukashenko has committed the crime of enforced disappearance,” said Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer for the International Federation for Human Rights.
Mr. Harauski arrived at court in the tranquil Alpine town of St. Gallen and climbed from a van with tinted windows with hood a pulled over his head to shield his face from photographers. Later, standing in court a few yards away from the daughters of two of the victims, Mr. Harauski read a statement expressing regret for his action and asking for forgiveness from the men’s families.
In media interviews Mr. Harauski said that he was part of an eight-man unit that intercepted Mr. Zakharenko in May 1999 as he walked from his car to his home in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. He has said that they cuffed Mr. Zakharenko’s hands behind his back, put a hood over his head and drove to an interior ministry training ground north of Minsk, where the unit’s commander shot Mr. Zakharenko twice in the back using a pistol with a silencer.
Mr. Gonchar and Mr. Krasovsky disappeared in September 1999 after leaving a Minsk sauna. Mr. Harauski said his unit pulled the men from Mr. Gonchar’s car and drove them to a wooded area in another interior ministry site where they were each placed face down, shot twice in the back and tipped into a pre-dug grave.
“These people were hugely important, the last outposts of some sort of control over Lukashenko,” Katia Glod, a Russia-West fellow at the European Leadership Network, a London think tank, said in a telephone interview. Their disappearance “hugely influenced the evolution of the political system. After those people were gone the Belarusian opposition was never able to make any inroads into the government.”
United Nations experts investigating enforced disappearances welcomed the Swiss trial in a statement last week as “a fundamental step toward justice and reparation that will help uncover the truth.”
The authorities in Belarus set up an official inquiry into the fate of the three missing men but closed it in 2003 after telling U.N. human rights experts they had been unable to identify what had happened to them. The Belarus authorities suggested the disappearances had been staged by opponents of the government to attract international attention.
The explanation only deepened the concern of international human rights bodies over what could have befallen such prominent opposition figures in a country tightly controlled by the state. Mr. Zakharenko, a former soldier and interior minister with strong connections in the security services, had become a leading political challenger to Mr. Lukashenko, who was first elected in 1994. Mr. Gonchar, a former head of Belarus election commission, had refused to certify the results of controversial referendums organized by the president to amend the Constitution in ways that strengthened his authority. Mr. Krasovsky, in addition to his business interests, was an editor of several newspapers.
A Council of Europe investigator concluded in 2004 that Belarusian authorities “at the highest level” had organized a cover-up and senior officials may have been involved in the disappearance of the three men.