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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suspected Zavadsky Kidnappers Arrested

MINSK, Belarus — Belarussian prosecutors said they have arrested members of a criminal gang suspected of abducting a cameraman working for ORT television and denied suggestions there were political overtones to the case.

Dmitry Zavadsky has not been seen since he vanished at Minsk airport last July. His colleagues at Russia's ORT channel have said his abduction was political, comparing it to the disappearances of several opponents of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The news came as Lukashenko, criticized in the West for eroding democracy in Belarus, announced tough new laws restricting public protests in the run-up to a presidential election later this year.

Senior investigator Ivan Branchel told reporters Friday that several suspected kidnappers, including current and former members of the security services with links to a radical right-wing group, had been arrested and sent for trial.

"We have absolutely proven beyond all doubt who kidnapped Dmitry, and yesterday we sent the case to court," said Branchel. "We do not know Dmitry's fate: whether he is dead or being hidden."

He said authorities believed the radical right-wing Russian National Unity group was behind Zavadsky's kidnap, which he said was carried out in revenge for Zavadsky's part in revealing that Russian National Unity activists were fighting alongside guerrillas in Chechnya.

Zavadsky's colleagues said they were not satisfied with the Belarussian investigation, which left many questions unanswered.

"We have not received an answer to the question — Zavadsky's kidnappers have been found, but where is Dmitry?" said the head of ORT's office in Minsk, Dmitry Novozhilov. "After the prosecutor's statement, we do not believe that everything happened as they describe it."

Branchel denied any political motive to the Zavadsky case. The cameraman had been briefly imprisoned in 1997 for border violations committed while filming a report about smuggling, a case that sparked a diplomatic spat between Russia and Belarus.

A number of Lukashenko's leading opponents have disappeared in Belarus in recent years, prompting international concern about his human rights record.

Viktor Gonchar, deputy speaker of the Belarussian parliament disbanded by Lukashenko in 1996, and businessman Anatoly Krasovsky disappeared in September 1999 after visiting a bathhouse.

Former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko, who was sacked after falling out with Lukashenko, also vanished in May 1999.

Lukashenko last week issued a decree further restricting public gatherings and protests, despite earlier criticism by opponents that he was muzzling the opposition.

Under the new rules, published in Friday's Sovietskaya Belarussiya state-run newspaper, only political parties and not individuals are allowed to apply for permission to hold large public gatherings.

The decree also outlaws masks, which some protesters wear to hide their identity, and allows for the dissolution of any party that breaks such rules.