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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Village Raider Goes on Trial in Belarus

NIKOLAYEVKA, Belarus -- It has been eight months since the residents of the Belarussian village of Nikolayevka underwent a bizarre two-hour ordeal when they were dragged at gunpoint from their homes, forced to follow orders from a gang of camouflage-clad teenagers from Siberia, intimidated and even beaten.

The attack was later described by its 11 adult leaders as a training exercise.

Now, the principal organizer of this "game" is on trial in the nearby town of Svetlogorsk. Anatoly Selivonchik, 43, is charged with aggravated hooliganism, using violence to deprive people of their freedom and resisting arrest. If found guilty, he could face up to seven years in prison, Judge Nadezhda Romanova said.

Judging by witnesses' listless testimony and comments, time has allayed the fear and shock experienced by Nikolayevka residents last summer.

On June 30, Selivonchik and 10 ex-servicemen led a group of 125 teenagers aged 11 to 17, members of the Siberian "adventure club" Berkut, when they stormed Nikolayevka and held its residents hostage.

The invaders, dressed in black or camouflage military uniforms and armed with fake - but authentic-looking - pistols and guns, entered villagers' homes and told them to evacuate. Men who resisted were beaten, handcuffed and dragged to the square in front of the local school, where all the other residents had been forced to gather, as the attackers set off explosions and fireworks.

Meanwhile, local administration officials were tied up and held under the desks in their offices.

More than 100 of Nikolayevka's 450 residents happened to be home that morning, and of those, the only one allowed to stay home was an 86-year-old paralyzed woman.

In front of the school, Selivonchik addressed the villagers, explaining that the attack proved the civilian population was completely unprepared for real attacks should they occur. The invaders then released the hostages and left the village, promising to send a couple of cases of vodka to make up for their mischief.

Selivonchik was detained three days later as he tried to stage a similar attack in the town of Bobruisk. He was arrested by police special forces, or OMON, as he attempted to assault the local police chief, who was trying to talk him into surrendering voluntarily.

Vyacheslav Dikun, the head of Nikolayevka's administration, who sat tied under his desk during the invasion, said Selivonchik and other Berkut leaders had warned him that a military-style exercise would be held that day in the nearby forest.

Such war games used to be popular in children's summer camps, but Dikun said he had no idea his entire village would fall victim to a game that was so real.

Pyotr Shurkhai, an economist with the local administration, was one of those who had not put up a fight and, hence, did not sustain any injuries.

"If those were adults, I would have fought back, but I don't mess with teenagers," Shurkhai said.

"I wonder where the police were looking! We called them, but they thought it was a joke and would not even bother to come," he said, adding that few people - especially among the women - realized the invaders' weapons were fake and that is why they fell into such a panic.

Tatyana Rusinovich, 46, a school teacher, still cannot help crying when she recalls last summer's nightmare. Her husband, Anatoly, a driver, was one of those most severely beaten because he refused to obey the teenagers who broke into his house. Some 20 years ago, he had undergone brain surgery and now, after receiving several blows to the head during the attack, suffers from severe headaches, his wife said.

"When I found out that my husband was nearly battered to death, I came up to him [Selivonchik] and said, 'You were born here, how could you do that here?' And he only said, 'Our men were injured too,'" she added.

Court testimony revealed that some Nikolayevka residents knew Selivonchik, who is a native of the neighboring village of Gamza, and others had heard of him thanks to his wealth and philanthropic activity.

Now a Russian citizen, Selivonchik runs a cargo transportation business in Surgut, eastern Siberia. He told investigators he sponsored the teenagers' trip to mark the 55th anniversary of Belarus' liberation from Nazi occupation. Svetlogorsk district, where Nikolayevka is located, suffered heavily during World War II and is a popular site for war veterans and school field trips.

Since he was arrested last summer, Selivonchik has been saying his actions should not be considered a serious crime.

He appeared in court during the first days of the trial, which started Feb. 21, but then was barred from attending for insulting and threatening the prosecutor and witnesses.

"He was so impudent and rude, insulting everyone and everything around him, that we had to isolate him," Romanova said.

Selivonchik can ask to be allowed back in the courtroom, "but he does not seem willing to do so," the judge added.

He even threatened to find and take revenge on the witnesses when he is released, she said. A total of 19 victims and 52 witnesses of the invasion are to testify, so the trial is expected to stretch on for about a month.

Romanova described Selivonchik's behavior during his time in pretrial detention and the first two days of the hearing as puzzling. A wealthy businessman, he has filed several dozen complaints, but never bothered to hire a lawyer and is now being represented by a court-appointed defender, she said.

Romanova also said she was surprised Berkut's other adult leaders were never arrested. She said police officials explained that "someone had to accompany the teenagers back to Russia."

But Valery Glushko, the OMON officer who personally arrested Selivonchik, said the teenagers explained the adults' reason for "touring" the country as "getting debts back." Selivonchik handed over a list of names and addresses of people who allegedly owed money to some unidentified individuals, and Glushko suggested Selivonchik and his companions were involved in extortion using the teenage club as a cover.

Romanova said she has never received any such list from investigators.

Despite criticism in the local media, Selivonchik, who refuses to speak with the press, boasts a number of supporters nationwide. Romanova said she has received letters from local charity and religious organizations supporting him.

In the past, he has donated money for the restoration of churches across Belarus and financed the restoration of a national Belarussian sacred relic, the Life-giving Cross of Euphrosenia in Polotsk.