A show trial on the edge of Europe

The word "Stalinist" is often used without much thought but the court case that ended in Minsk on 30 November was perhaps as close as one could get to a Stalinist spectacle in modern-day Europe. In the comically named House of Justice in the capital of Belarus, proceedings took place on a raised stage.

I watched as Judge Alexander Fedortsov, dressed in black and flanked by two grey-suited deputies, spent four hours reading out his verdict in the trial of two 25-year-old men.

Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov, who stood throughout in metal cages, were found guilty of bombing the Minsk Metro system in April, an attack that killed 15 and wounded 200. Fedortsov sentenced them to be shot in the back of the head.

“This is a travesty," Kovalyov's mother, Lyubov, said on the steps outside the courtroom after the verdict, wiping away her tears. "The judge has turned all the evidence upside down." In court, people shouted out in disbelief at the judge's conclusions. When he walked off the courtroom stage, having performed as well as his ultimate boss, the long-standing Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, could have wanted, there were shouts of "Disgrace".

The Minsk Metro attack was one of the more bizarre European news events this year. None of the possible versions for why it might have taken place makes much sense. Perhaps the least cogent is the official version - Konovalov wanted to "destabilise the situation in the Republic of Belarus" and so the chemistry whizz-kid built a bomb himself and detonated it. He confessed all of this during the investigation; in court, he stared into the middle distance and said nothing over three months of hearings. Kovalyov, who had initially implicated his friend, changed his mind in court and said that he had testified only after he heard the screams of Konovalov being tortured. During the trial, he maintained that both were innocent.


Other, more conspiratorial versions suggest some kind of government involvement - possibly a result of infighting in the secret services. But nobody has any firm information.

It is possible that Konovalov and Kovalyov took part in some way, but there is no strong evidence apart from the confessions and the case is full of holes. For instance, the judge explained away a contradiction in eyewitness evidence over the colour of a bag at the scene of the bombing as proof that "different people see the colour black in different ways".

The day after the verdict, I met Pavel Levinov, a human rights activist who, like Konovalov and Kovalyov, comes from the provincial town of Vitebsk. In the shabby apartment of one of Minsk's few, beleaguered human rights activists, he told me how he, too, had been caught up in theinvestigation. In April, just pair as killers, more than half of Belarusians suspect that the state may have been involved in the bomb attack. The regime lost
the respect of most Belarusians long ago; now, it has lost even the most basic level of trust.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war