Member of Belarus squad that made political opponents disappear goes on trial in Switzerland

By John Revill

ZURICH (Reuters) - A former member of a Belarusian special unit accused of making opposition members disappear without trace went on trial in Switzerland on Tuesday, in the first case of its kind to be heard in the country.

The man, who has sought asylum in Switzerland, is accused of involvement in the enforced disappearance of three opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994.

The defendant, who has not been named according to Swiss reporting restrictions, was tracked down in Switzerland by human rights groups.

The Belarus embassy in Bern declined to comment on the case.

In a weekend interview with the newspaper Schweiz am Wochenende, the accused said that although he was involved in arresting the men he "neither ordered nor carried out the murders."

"I was merely a witness to them. I followed orders. I am ready to answer for this act," he said.

The Swiss law on enforced disappearance took effect in 2017 but it has not been used in a criminal case before.

The case is being heard under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction that allows states to prosecute individuals suspected of having committed international crimes, regardless of nationality or where the offences were committed.

The case relates to the 1999 disappearance of former interior minister Yuri Zakharenka, Viktar Hanchar, a former deputy prime minister, and businessman Anatoly Krasouski, with authorities in Belarus refusing to help their families find them.

The defendant had sought asylum in Switzerland arguing that his life was at risk in Belarus due to his willingness to speak out about his involvement with the specialist unit charged with making opponents to President Lukashenko disappear.

The case follows criminal claims by relatives of two of the victims, and is supported by Geneva-based group Trial International, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Viasna Human Rights Center in Belarus.

The defendant was arrested in 2021, and after being questioned he was formally charged in May 2022. The prosecution are seeking a sentence of three years, with two years suspended.

The case is being heard by Rorshach District Court in North Eastern Switzerland, with a verdict expected on Wednesday.

"This is the first time a Belarus official has gone on trial for such grave infringements of human rights," Clemence Bectarte, a lawyer for FIDH told Reuters.

"Forced disappearance is a very specific crime that has been used in Belarus to spread terror among opponents, activists and their families. The people responsible must be exposed and brought to justice."

(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Hugh Lawson)