In fighting lawlessness citizens need support from media
In fighting lawlessness citizens are in desperate need of support from mass media, says Liudmila Kuchura in an interview to the HRC "Viasna". She, together with her companions in misfortune, has been pestering state institutions for about 10 years now. Victims of lawlessness from different parts of Belarus united in their search for justice, which is lost in the corridors of the law enforcement. But the forces in the confrontation between them and the system are far from being equal.
- Liudmila, let's start with the situation that made you take the path of seeking justice.
- In 2004, my husband was arrested in connection with the murder of an inspector of the State Committee for the Protection of Flora and Fauna. But I have to stress it, not at the murder scene, but the following day – they came to our home, my husband was invited as a witness and there he was arrested. It was in the village of Mastsishcha, Dziarzhynski district, where my husband and his friends had gathered at the cottage of one of them and decided to hunt. At this time, state inspectors of Stoubtsy district were allegedly raiding the area, but, as the materials of the criminal case say, there was no raid there. Probably it was poaching by these state inspectors, who were accompanied by officials. However, it is impossible to prove this, because in our country there is no independent court yet and investigation was, of course, commissioned. The murder, as we believe, was an accident.
And now my husband was prosecuted for the murder. All of his "guilt" was that he was in the nearest village, besides he himself is a hunter and they found a registered gun in his house. Naturally, his involvement in the murder was not proved. The case file suggest the opposite. And many interesting circumstances accompanied the case.
First, for a month the case was frozen, the investigation was not conducted – they were obviously trying to figure out how to do everything. To all, on the day of detention my husband was visited at the detention center in Dziarzhynsk by Niavyhlas, who at the time was the State Secretary of the Security Council of the Republic of Belarus, and was forcing my husband to take the blame upon himself. He said if he confessed it would be a nonnegligent manslaughter, otherwise it would be an intentional murder, with punishment of up to life, and there could even be a death verdict. He told my husband to think about his wife and son. In general, there were loads of threats... The trial was also weird. Imagine a murder case being heard in just four days. The witnesses were only from one side – the same state inspectors, game keepers who were on this hunt. And nobody from our side. All the motions we entered were rejected by the court. There is no examination, which would prove that the state inspector was killed with my husband’s gun. After the appeal, when I hired a lawyer, we found that a lot of documents disappeared from the case file. And most weird is that the murder was committed on December 11, and the first examination, a ballistics one, was appointed on January 10, one month after the murder. We have a forensic examination, which found that he was killed in the back. And this was even told by the investigator in the news. The court verdict said he was killed in the chest. This was done in order to make a hero out of the dead man (of course, the man was in no way to blame). And it could only be done by a high ranking official. As it became clear later, it was done by Niavyhlas, and he, the Secretary of the Security Council, personally went to Stoubtsy to award the widow of the deceased. All this was during the investigation – that is, even before the trial my husband was labeled a criminal. This award was fatal. There was return...
Besides, the case materials have my husband's testimony at the trial. They are very important. And we are grateful to the secretary who kept the trial records. So, to the question, "You said that you shot?", he replied that he spoke the words of officials who convinced him that he did it. The minutes say that my husband repeated it twice. But do you think someone noticed that?...
My husband received eighteen years. For us, it was a shock...
When in 2009 I petitioned Lukashenka to stress that the case had to do with Henady Niavyhlas, two of our witnesses were killed – my husband’s friends – with whom he was in the cottage. And the circumstances of their deaths are also strange: one allegedly runs into stone and dies – but nobody saw this, and eight months later the other one drowned in the lake; although they said that he drowned himself, but under his nails he had soil and a bruise in his temple... I think they just got rid of them, and now they are trying to finish us...
- Immediately after the verdict you started this years long struggle?
- Yes. There was the verdict... Here, incidentally, is also an interesting aspect. The sentence was handed down on June 23 - and a week later the judge (it was an ordinary judge of the Minsk Regional Court Kleshchanok) became a judge of the Supreme Court. It is clear: the order was executed. Interestingly, this Kleshchanok himself is a hunter – he knows all the nuances, so to speak.
But as you know, kind people are everywhere. One good friend of mine, asking everyone about how to send a petition to the President so that that it could reach him, accidentally found a man who agreed to meet with me and help. I had not met him before, we just met, I handed him the papers, my petition to the President, and we parted, not even exchanged phone numbers. It was just after the appeal, my husband was transferred to Navapolatsk in the last week of August, and on September 7 my husband was visited at the colony by people from the President’s security service according to his instructions. They told my husband that they had seen the case file and that there the devil himself would not understand it, that’s what they said. And then they said: you will have a new trial, the President gave a command. Then our former lawyer was received at the Supreme Court by Kalinkovich [Valery Kalinkovich, since 2005 – Deputy Chairman, Chairman of the Judicial Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus - Ed.], where it was confirmed. But so far no there has been no trial.
So I started pestering, writing complaints. I hired a new lawyer and went to the Supreme Court to arrange his meeting with Sukala [Valiantsin Sukala - Chairman of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus - Ed.]. Of course, such institutions are visited by a lot of people and all of them tell their stories. And I, being confident in the innocence of my husband, never in all these years was afraid to say that my husband was in prison for murder. And so, in conversations at the Supreme Court, I met the first five people. And when I came to the reception with the lawyer, these women also came there at the same time, we exchanged phone numbers and decided to phone one another. And on the way home I thought that now I got five numbers, so why not write a collective letter to the President. And so there was our first collective petition. Then the staff in the President’s Administration did not take us seriously, even joking, saying we’re kind of weird. But later they stopped joking, I tell you.
And then, when you come to a reception at the Presidential Administration, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Supreme Court, you meet new people. And it somehow was growing. They learned a lot in prisons and gave my phone number to their relatives. Women phoned me and said that my number was given in the Supreme Court.
This is how our group was formed, and we are still together. People who over the years have solved their questions still remain with us, signing all our collective complaints to various authorities, international organizations and so on. They understand the need to help those who once helped them. Indeed, thanks to this group some prisoners are now free.
- Can you define your group somehow, number of persons or geographically?
- Now we have 50 people, maybe even more. People gathered from virtually all regions of the country. And we have different cases - civil, criminal ones. Among us there are those whose relatives were killed, and the perpetrator is not punished. Of course, the government should be very ashamed. Imagine people who have killed children together with me, whose husband is in prison for murder (if you ignore the fact that my husband is innocent). What does this imply? This suggests people’s distrust in the government, this whole system - law enforcement agencies and others.
- You said that there are cases where you managed to achieve something...
- Right. I think in 2010 we sent telegrams from different cities of Belarus (and we still do) on the day when the President addresses the people and parliament. And these telegrams were sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office, after which it began issuing protests. Unfortunately, the protests issued on civil cases were not met by the court. Not all of them were met in criminal cases, either, but I can mention a few.
In the case of Aliaksandr Babenka, a guy from Barysau, who was jailed for a murder he did not commit when he still was under-aged. As a juvenile offender, he was given nine years, and he served six years. And his Mother, after years of struggle, managed to have her son released. In Vaukavysk, a man was sentenced to eight years on drug charges, he served four years and was acquitted in the end.
There is the case of Aliaksandr Bud-Husaim, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly killing a gamekeeper in 1999. (My husband’s case is a copy of the case of Bud-Husaim. We have the same Minsk Regional Prosecutor's Office and the Minsk Regional Court.) He was detained by employees of Salihorsk police department and during interrogations, which took place in the absence of a counsel, under torture, he was forced to confess. But in fact, as it was proved by his lawyer, Bud-Husaim did not hunt on the day of the murder, he did not shoot his gun and was not at the murder scene. The judicial investigation was superficial and hasty, it lasted for a total of one working day. This means that it began on May 31 at 14:40 (at 14:20 they gave him 20 minutes to study the materials of the case) and was over at 18.00, on June 1 - from 09.30 to 13.00. And the sentence is life sentence! Over the years that Aliaksandr Bud-Husaim served in prison, he, his wife and the lawyer did not cease to write to all kinds of authorities. But the answer was the same – everything is legal. In 2010, a petition by his wife was somehow considered in the Presidential Administration, then the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a protest. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of the Minsk Regional Court, the charges were reclassified, he was given 20 years in a maximum security prison, the amnesties of 2000, 2002 and 2005 were applied to him, as a result he got 17 years. And Aliaksandr Bud-Husaim is currently at home. Incidentally, the poaching charges were also dropped in his case, and so this raises a question: why then did he have to kill the gamekeeper?
In my husband’s case there is a question: why was it necessary to kill the state inspector? After all, for some reason during the investigation and trial he was not charged with administrative offences for poaching. Although the state media previously reported that he was poaching. The Court also failed to establish the motive, intent and purpose of "murder". But my petitions were never followed by any protests. However, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued one protest - that a gun, as it turned out, had been illegally seized from us. We constantly wrote about it in our complaints, we were always answered that is was legitimate. And suddenly, after five and a half years, it turned out that it was illegal. The Supreme Court considered part of the case relating to the protest, although in such cases the whole thing should be reviewed. As a result, the state returned the money to us, of course, not much...
But in our group there are cases in which we cannot achieve a success. Nina Kurnushka’s son was killed in 2000 while hunting. Until now, the murdered has not been punished. Berazino Prosecutor’s Office, which was investigating the case, found no elements of a crime. All these years his mother has been going to state bodies, and the Prosecutor General's office, the Administration of the President and other officials keep assuring her that her son killed himself. Despite the fact that seven years later Deputy Prosecutor General Prus issued a resolution, which said that the evidence collected confirmed the presence of a criminal assault disguised as a hunting accident. But no matter where the grief-stricken mother goes with her complaints, no criminal case has been opened yet.
In 2000, a 16-year-old daughter of Mikalai Lebedz of Salihorsk was raped and murdered. All these years he has been seeking punishment of the murderer, but he has been denied, too. Although he has all the evidence and names the culprits. This case was investigated by Karelichy Prosecutor’s Office.
We have the case of Ramiz Mamedau, who in 2004 sentenced to 24 years by the Hrodna Regional Court for the murder of his cousin in Lida. Neither the court nor the investigation paid attention to the fact that on the day of the murder Ramiz did not come to this city... One of the letters by Halina Mamedava, Ramiz’s mother, happened to reach Viktar Lukashenka, Assistant to the President for National Security, and was not left unattended. He instructed the Operative Analytical Center to review the case. The OAC concluded that Ramiz was slandered and he was not in Lida on the day of the murder. The same conclusion was made by Vasilevich [Ryhor Vasilevich, in 2008-2011 – Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus - Ed.], who personally interrogated the two alleged witnesses. And these witnesses... one of them is an addict who, as noted in the case file, even testified in a state of intoxication, but it is on this testimony that the court based its indictment. The case was then considered by a working group created in the Presidential Administration, who also concluded that all was wrong in this case. On the basis of a reference from the working group, Uladzimir Makei, the then head of the Presidential Administration, sent a letter to the Prosecutor General, in which, among other things, he stated that evidence of Mamedau’s guilt was based on testimony that was subsequently recognized false, that not all witnesses were interrogated, including those who argued that Ramiz Mamedau was in a different settlement at the time of the murder. In this letter, Makei asks to inspect the new circumstances for the resumption of the proceedings. In July 2011, the Supreme Court annulled the verdict of the Hrodna Regional Court. The case is sent to the prosecutor for a new investigation. And in March 2013 the Hrodna Regional Court reconvicts Ramiz Mamedau of murder, sentencing him to imprisonment for 24 years, and once again the verdict was based on the testimony of the same drug addicts. After an appeal to the Supreme Court, the verdict remained in place. So how can we proceed in such a situation?
There is a former judge and lawyer, Siarhei Yarashevich from Zhlobin. He passed through 17 courts, but has been unable to prove anything. He was convicted of disorderly conduct he did not commit – he allegedly beat a former employee of the Interior Ministry, whom he had defended in a criminal trial. Generally, it is a weird situation. And there were two "witnesses". Later one of them said in court that he had slandered Yarashevich and the other gave himself up to the Homel Regional Prosecutor's Office. But it did no good. And so, the man has been pestering together with us since 2005. So if a former judge and a lawyer can prove nothing, imagine how difficult it is for us, ordinary citizens.
So we acted. But then, perhaps, the authorities decided that a lot had already been done for us. And now, hard as we try, all correspondence with us has been stopped, they do not respond...
- And what, or who, in your opinion, could help in such "impenetrable" situations?
- I think it is very important that mass media could tell as much as possible about such things. Of course, the authorities are trying to ignore the articles of independent media. I will say that not only the independent ones. In 2007, the head of the legal department of the newspaper "Respublika", a fairly well-known journalist, wrote an article about my husband. He was not allowed to publish it in "Respublika", but it appeared in "Chastnyi detektiv". Of course, he was confronted by the Prosecutor General's Office and the Supreme Court, but nonetheless. All that was stated there is true. I will say that there was no reaction - no one demanded any checks. Yes, the authorities do not react. But it is necessary to write about it.
First, all citizens need to know what is happening in their country. After all, the state television, the government-owned press only talk about achievements, which actually is not true. How else can we know the truth? Only through the independent media. Of course, people can hear it - someone talked somewhere about something illegal. But if it is written and people will read - it means a lot. And I will say - it is very uncomfortable for the authorities. Although they do not react, but they feel very uncomfortable. And if, for example, my articles have appeared in "Narodnaya Volya" and I came to some agencies, even the officials there said "Well done, Liudmila!" I ask, well, how’s it "up there"? You can imagine their reaction, they answer they are “silent up there“. And it is their silence that just proves that we write the truth. I think that the time will change one day. And those things covered by the media will be seen, and maybe they will still be reviewed.
There is, of course, the reverse side. The more we write and publicize these cases, the greater is the pressure that’s exerted on our loved ones in prisons. After all, when we tried to have the cases reviewed, there was harassment against these people. I remember a lot of pressure was put on Aliaksandr Babenka. There was abuse of Ramiz Mamedau, and when after the new sentence he was brought back to Ivatsevichy, immediately from the quarantine he was put in solitary confinement, now, I think, they are going to put him in the cell-type prison. It seems that he is being prepared for prison, as it was done with my husband. These and other people have experienced a lot in the colonies. And if in my husband’s case officials are involved, in other cases there is nothing similar - but the treatment towards prisoners is the same. What does this mean? If it was a lawful sentence - why be afraid?