Belarus executes 2 men convicted of subway bombing

March 18, 2012 - 5:05 PM
Belarus Subway Bombing

Belarusian lays flowers to memorial board to victims of last year subway blast in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, March 16, 2012. Belarus' president has denied clemency to two men sentenced to death for last year's bombing in the capital's subway that killed 15 people. State television reported Wednesday that President Alexander Lukashenko rejected the clemency appeal. The men could be executed anytime. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Two men convicted of carrying out a deadly subway bombing last year in Belarus' capital have been executed, drawing strong condemnation from activists and the European Union.

The mother of one of the two 26 year olds said that she had received official notification of the execution of her son, Vladislav Kovalyov. State television reported late Saturday that both Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov had been put to death, which in Belarus is done with a shot to the back of the head.

Human rights activists condemned the hasty executions, saying they deprived society of the opportunity to learn the truth.

"The government was in a rush to throw a white shroud over all the contradictions and discrepancies in the case," activist Lyudmila Gryaznova said Sunday. "The execution of the so-called terrorists, whose guilt remains under suspicion, gives the appearance that the government is concealing the traces of the crime."

The men were convicted in November of planting a bomb in Minsk's busiest subway station that killed 15 people and wounded more than 300 in April.

Konovalov had acknowledged his guilt. Investigators said Kovalyov was aware of the plans to bomb the subway, but he insisted he did not take part and pleaded not guilty. Their defense lawyers said the evidence presented in court was circumstantial and inconclusive.

Critics of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko accused his government of staging the bombing to divert attention from the worst economic crisis in the country's post-Soviet history.

Belarusians angered by the executions came to lay flowers or light candles outside the subway station on Sunday.

"The government shot these boys so quickly that I have even more doubts about their guilt," said Tatyana Snezhinskaya, a 42-year-old teacher, who was among those laying flowers. "The death penalty should be abolished. We should not take the lives of people, especially of those who might be the victims of judicial errors or political orders."

Flowers also were laid outside Belarus' embassy in Moscow, where someone had placed a sign with photographs of the two men and the words: "They were killed on Lukashenko's whim."

Germany's government condemned the executions and said they would further alienate Belarus from Europe.

"Lukashenko thus drifts even further away from our European values," Ronald Pofalla, Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, said. "The already heavily burdened relation between Belarus and Europe will be rendered yet more difficult by this."

Markus Loening, the German government's top human rights official, called Lukashenko "a dictator without heart or mercy."

Last month, the European Union toughened sanctions imposed on Belarus over the repression of the political opposition, and EU members recalled their ambassadors after Belarus asked the head of the EU delegation in Minsk and the Polish ambassador to leave the country.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also criticized the executions. A statement issued by her spokesman said Ashton is "aware of the terrible crimes that these two men were accused of and her thoughts are with the victims and their families," but at the same time she "notes that the two accused were not accorded due process, including the right to defend themselves."

Lukashenko last week ignored appeals from Ashton and others for clemency.

The time and place of executions in Belarus are kept secret. Relatives of those executed are notified afterward, if at all, and are not told where the bodies are buried.

Belarus is the only country in Europe that still puts people to death, and rights activists claim that around 400 people have been executed since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

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Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.