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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Hears Proof on Belarus Death Squad

WASHINGTON — The United States said two former Belarussian investigators given asylum have revealed credible evidence of a death squad run by President Alexander Lukashenko or members of his entourage.

"Investigators Dmitry Petrushkevich and Oleg Sluchek have made detailed and credible revelations about a Lukashenko regime death squad reportedly responsible for up to 30 murders," State Department spokesman Charles Hunter said Tuesday.

"This provides additional support for allegations of regime involvement in these disappearances, which we take very seriously," Hunter said.

The two men, former investigators at the Prosecutor General's Office, fled to the United States in June and are at an undisclosed location.

Lukashenko on Wednesday slammed the investigators' allegations and told the United States to keep out of Belarus' affairs. "I would advise [the State Department] to mind its own business and not meddle in things it doesn't understand," Lukashenko told reporters during a visit to a business center in the outskirts of Minsk.

Lukashenko called the allegations a "provocation" prepared by opposition factions ahead of a presidential election on Sept. 9.

Cathy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the New York-based International League for Human Rights, told reporters the former investigators' story.

Petrushkevich, 26, had been helping investigate the disappearance a year ago of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman with ORT television. Zavadsky was once Lukashenko's personal cameraman but fell from grace after being detained over a report on smuggling to Lithuania.

During the investigation, Petrushkevich and Sluchek, 25, came to fear for their lives after a witness was killed and another investigator died suddenly.

Their version, based partly on reports from other investigators, is that Belarus' leadership is using an elite, maroon-bereted unit called Almaz to deal with opposition figures, critics and members of the underworld.

The two former investigators say then-Security Council head Viktor Sheiman ordered the formation of the squad in 1996 and that it has since killed 30 Lukashenko critics. Sheiman is now prosecutor general.

Sluchek said earlier that the squad was headed by special unit officer Dmitry Pavlyuchenko and consisted of at least a dozen men including Valery Ignatovich, who is being held in custody by Belarussian prosecutors on charges of kidnapping Zavadsky.

The former investigators met on July 3 with Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and Lorne Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

Four days after that meeting, the United States issued a statement on the first anniversary of the disappearance of Zavadsky saying it remained "deeply concerned" about his case.

It also noted former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko vanished while walking home on May 7, 1999, and that former Central Election Commission chairman Viktor Gonchar and his associate, Yury Krasovsky, vanished on Sept. 16 that year. "To date, Belarussian authorities have not provided any accounting of the whereabouts of these individuals," the July 7 statement by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

The State Department spokesman noted Lukashenko's reaction in November to then-Prosecutor General Oleg Bozhelko's request for Russian help in searching an area near a cemetery in Minsk, which Hunter said was credibly believed to be Zavadsky's burial site.

"Shortly after Bozhelko made this request, Alexander Lukashenko fired him and canceled the request," Hunter said.

"Belarussian authorities need to account for these people in order to remove the current climate of fear and create an atmosphere conducive to free and fair presidential elections."

The Bush administration has tried to use the Sept. 9 presidential election to get Lukashenko to improve his record by offering carrots if he holds a fair poll, but it got nowhere, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile in Minsk, pressure on Lukashenko to address the death squad allegations was growing Wednesday after a candidate for the upcoming presidential election released a stack of Interior Ministry letters that link top Lukashenko aides to the disappearance of opposition figures.

The candidate, Vladimir Goncharik, received the letters last week from an anonymous party, his spokesman Dmitry Vereshchagin said Wednesday.

Copies were reviewed by The Moscow Times.

Among the documents is a letter from General Nikolai Lopatik of the Interior Ministry's police to Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov. He writes that Pavlyuchenko — the alleged head of the death squad — had shot Zakharenko, Gonchar and Krasovsky on orders from Sheiman. He also wrote that the killings had been done with a pistol reserved for the execution of criminals on death row.

Interior Minister Naumov denied the letter Wednesday as "nonsense," Interfax reported.

Another letter is signed by Colonel Oleg Alkayev, head of pre-trial detention center No. 1, where executions are carried out. In it, he writes that Pavlyuchenko took that same pistol twice in 1999, about the time when Zakharenko, Gonchar and Krasovsky went missing.

Goncharik urged Lukashenko in an open letter published Monday in several independent Belarussian newspapers to order an investigation into the Interior Ministry letters.

"Lukashenko could get himself an alibi only if he orders an investigation and suspends the officials involved," Goncharik told NTV on Wednesday.

The Belarussian leader has remained mum about the documents.

Meanwhile, the office of the Minsk-based Den independent newspaper was raided Monday night and the hard drives of three computers were stolen, NTV reported. The newspaper had planned a special issue later this week dedicated to Belarussian politicians who have gone missing. Vasily Zdanyuk, Den's deputy editor, said all materials for the special issue had disappeared.

(Reuters, MT)