Belarus Executioner: Lukashenko Knew

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BERLIN Ч Colonel Oleg Alkayev knows the face of death intimately. As director of the Belarus prison carrying out capital punishment, he has seen 130 prisoners executed by a single Ч or sometimes a second Ч bullet to the head.

For decades, Alkayev loyally carried out the state's orders, first as a prison official in the Soviet Union, then as the head of a central prison in Belarus.

Now, the burly 145-kilogram jailer is in temporary exile in Berlin, accusing Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko of sanctioning and then covering up the murder of opposition figures.

"Never before had I seen the government a participant in the murder of innocent people," Alkayev said in an interview.

"I was punishing only guilty people, and I of all people know the difference between the guilty and the innocent."

He left Belarus after claiming that he was ordered to make his executioner's gun available on several occasions for unlawful killings. He said the government ended an investigation without finding any wrongdoing.

"At first , I thought Lukashenko didn't know everything and that he would speed up the investigation. After he ended the investigations, and got involved in the coverup, I became convinced he knew," Alkayev said.

Belarus has called Alkayev's statement a lie.

For years Alkayev held the country's most deadly gun, a 6PB-9 army pistol equipped with a silencer that an officer on his staff would raise unexpectedly to a condemned prisoner's head and mete out the death penalty.

The prisoners knew they had been sentenced to death but would never be told the date of the execution.

It was a gun licensed to kill.

In 1999, he said he was asked by top Belarussian Interior Ministry officials on two occasions to lend them the gun for training purposes. "I thought it was strange, but I fulfill orders," he said, explaining why he complied.

Later he realized that several opposition figures, including a former interior minister and a former head of the election commission, had disappeared on the very days his gun was on loan. "Only over time did I understand there was a connection," he said.

"This became my problem because I understood that if a body was found with a bullet from my gun, it would show that I had committed the murder.

"Who would doubt that someone who had participated in so many executions would be involved in a pair of extra murders?"

Using the official gun may have made it psychologically easier for a security official to kill an innocent man from the political opposition, Alkayev said.

When he began to suspect the link between the loan of his gun and the disappearances, he said he approached various officials. They told him to keep his mouth shut.

In June, two Belarussian investigators defected to the United States and gave details of the previously secret case of the missing pistol. Soon afterward, Alkayev left Belarus, going first to Russia and then to Berlin.

The investigators "have made detailed and credible revelations about a Lukashenko regime death squad reportedly responsible for up to 30 murders," U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Hunter said in July.

Lukashenko's government has called the reports provocations ahead the election. "All these new facts are provocations, falsifications and forgeries. The prosecutor's office cannot use this information for any investigation," Alexei Taranov, prosecutor's office spokesman, said Monday. "We cannot trust Alkayev's statements. He has no credible evidence and one can forge anything in our century of scientific progress."

Alkayev looks as though he has experienced some tough times in his 48 years. His large hands show bones slightly out of place from street brawls while a gang member growing up in Soviet Kazakhstan. His forearms are massive, his salt-and-pepper hair trim, his demeanor serious.

The son of a chauffeur, Alkayev said he became an Interior Minister official working in jails to reverse his path after his rowdy youth. He moved to Belarus in 1991; soon afterward the Soviet republic gained independence.

In 1996, Alkayev became the head of Pretrial Detention Center No. 1 in Minsk, which also doubled as the execution chambers. He earned about $200 a month, a good salary by local standards.

"It wasn't pleasant work and it was totally secret as well," he said. "Even my wife and family didn't know about it, although perhaps they could guess."

When it came time to render the death penalty, about 12 men under Alkayev's direction would gather a condemned prisoner. Alkayev says he never himself pulled the trigger.

"Then they would go into a special room where he would be shot unexpectedly," he said. "This was considered more humane because there was no expectation of what was to come."

Alkayev hopes his revelations will help defeat Lukashenko in next month's elections, and he hopes to return soon to live in Minsk where his wife and two grown children live. He says he does not fear for his life.