Swiss court acquits Belarusian in first enforced disappearance case

By John Revill

ZURICH (Reuters) -A former member of a Belarusian special unit accused of involvement in the disappearances of prominent opposition figures was acquitted by a Swiss court.

The case marked the first time a Swiss court had heard a case involving enforced disappearance.

The defendant had sought asylum in Switzerland, arguing his life was at risk in Belarus due to his willingness to speak out about his involvement with the special unit known as SOBR that made opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko disappear.

The District Court in Rorshach, northeastern Switzerland, acquitted the man on Thursday after a two-day hearing last week.

“Due to the defendant’s contradictory statements, his actual involvement in the disappearances of Yuri Zakharenko, Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky in 1999 cannot be considered legally proven,” the court said in a statement.

The involvement of the Belarus government in the disappearances could also not be proven beyond reasonable doubt because it was not represented in the proceedings, the court said.

The man, aged 45, has not been named because of Swiss reporting restrictions.

The case relates to the 1999 disappearance of former interior minister Yuri Zakharenko, Viktor Gonchar, a former deputy prime minister, and businessman Anatoly Krosovsky. Authorities in Belarus refused to help their families find them.

The man, who was arrested in 2021 and formally charged last year, has admitted to being involved in detaining the three men but denies that he either ordered or carried out their murder.

The case marks the first time an enforced disappearance case has been tried in Switzerland under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows states to prosecute individuals suspected of having committed international crimes, regardless of nationality or where the offences were committed.

It followed criminal claims by the daughters of two of the disappeared men, supported by Geneva-based group Trial International, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Viasna Human Rights Center.

The groups said they were disappointed with the outcome, while one of the daughters said she would appeal the court’s decision.

In an interview published earlier this month, the accused said he was involved in arresting the men, but he “neither ordered nor carried out the murders”.

“I was merely a witness to them,” he said.

(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Barbara Lewis and Daniel Wallis)