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Sometimes it takes more than one bullet

Belarus is the only country in Europe that still has the death penalty. Executions are carried out at Ministry of Interior detention centre Sizo No. 1, usually around twelve months after sentence is passed but in some cases earlier, like that of the young men accused of the Minsk metro attack of 2011, who were put to death only three months after sentencing. Leaving such a short time span for appeals and legal challenges vastly increases the likelihood of wrongful executions.

The scant independence of the Belarusian judiciary is another major concern of human rights organizations. The processes involved in the selection, promotion and removal of judges are not based on objective criteria and are far from transparent. In practice, judges are appointed by the country’s President on the advice of the Justice Ministry and the president of the Supreme Court, resulting in enormous political influence over the judiciary. Furthermore, the law does not establish clear criteria for the term of judges’ appointments, which may range from five years to life.

Official data on capital punishment in Belarus are classified as a State secret. Everything is secret in fact except sentences, which are public. However, no official data are ever published on the actual consequences of judicial decisions in this area. Even the most basic information about their fate is kept secret from the condemned. This lack of transparency only aggravates the cruelty, inhumanity and degradation that is inseparable from capital punishment, not only for prisoners but also for their families. Executions are carried out without warning. The families and lawyers of death row inmates are not notified, and nor is the condemned man himself. The remains of those executed are not returned to their families, who are not even told where they are buried.

This practice results in all kinds of wild speculation over the actual fate of prisoners and of their bodies. According to one rumour, they are sent to a secret facility where their organs are illegally harvested and sold for transplants.

When members of an inmate’s family visit the prison after he has been executed, they are told that he is no longer there and are handed a document stating that “he has left the prison as sentenced”. No cause of death is given.

Some say that the bodies are cremated after executions, but VIASNA, one of Belarus’ leading human rights organizations, believes they are buried in anonymous numbered graves in Minsk’s Northern Cemetery to allow exhumation if necessary.

One recurring image associated with capital punishment in Belarus, repeated year in year out, is the sight of mothers searching for the remains of their children. Many appear deranged, willing to do anything to find where their sons are buried. They are to be found in all of the cemeteries around the capital poking into odd corners where the ground may have been disturbed in a hopeless search for burials that nobody is willing to tell them about. Their desperate yearning to talk one last time with their dead sons drives many to seek out mediums and clairvoyants, who claim to be able to make contact beyond the grave. Some dig symbolic graves and inter personal objects so as to create a place where they can grieve. Almost all of them keep a shrine in a corner at home with photographs, candles and flowers.

This cruel, secretive penal system is kept going by anonymous government officials, who must bear an additional burden of stress both at home and at work that eats away at their health and self-esteem.

3.1. The Squad Commandant

Director of Minsk high security prison between 1996 and 2001, where he was also in charge of the special unit assigned to executions. Some 150 people were shot while he was commandant. The former minister of interior twice demanded the pistol he used in executions. On both occasions, leading members of the opposition disappeared. He lives now in Berlin

Oleg Alkaev. Berlín, 23 de junio de 2013.

Oleg Alkaev

I was born in Siberia in 1952. My father was a driver and my mother a nurse. A year after I was born, we moved to Kazakhstan where I lived until I was 40 years old. I grew up, went to college, married and got my first job there. Like all of the kids in my neighbourhood, I grew up in the streets. I was a good student at school at first, but not so much afterwards. I preferred to spend time with my friends and I only scraped through high school. I did like reading however. I loved Jules Verne’s adventure books and Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories.

After leaving school I was conscripted into the army, and when I finished my service in 1974 I entered the Ministry of Interior training institute. I achieved good marks there. I had grown up, and I understood that I needed to specialize and work hard. After graduating, I started work as a police investigator. After a year and a half I was promoted, and I spent the next 20 years as a director of correctional facilities. I was put in charge of both prisons and labour camps. Eventually I went back to school, qualifying as a history teacher in 1986, although I never actually had a teaching job or anything like that.

I was sent to Belarus in 1991. I arrived in August with my wife, who was an army medic, and it was not long before I was promoted to Director of Penitentiaries. Three years later, in 1994, I was made head of security and one year after that I was director at Labor Camp No. 14. In November 1996, I became the head of the maximum security prison in Minsk, Sizo No. 1, where death row inmates and the most dangerous prisoners are held. No-one forced me to take the job. It was a promotion, a transfer from the backwoods to the capital, so of course I accepted. Anyway, it’s quite unusual in the Interior Ministry for anyone to refuse a posting. The job included a secret duty –to supervise the executions unit. This was an important part of my job. I was director of Sizo No. 1 from 1996 until 2001, and in those five years around 150 people were executed.

The job included a secret duty –to supervise the executions unit. This was an important part of my job.

When I took up my post, the execution process was absolutely barbaric. I can still remember every detail of the first execution I saw. It was on the night of the 30th to 31st of December 1996, just three weeks after I was made director. The operation was led by veterans, because I didn’t yet know the procedures, places and practices involved. Everything began at dusk, when I was informed that the special unit was ready to begin the mission. I was put in a car and in a few minutes a convoy of three vehicles set off. As some point after we had left the city behind us, the three drivers turned off their headlights and we went quietly on down the road in complete darkness until they turned off onto a forest track, which we followed until we came to a small clearing.

My companions took out some large tarpaulins and several spades. I could see they were going to dig a hole. It was very cold. The squad started work. They carefully spread out the tarpaulins and began piling onto them first the layer of snow and leaves that covered the ground and then the earth itself. The grave was ready in about two and a half hours. They finished off by shoring up the walls of the pit with wooden boards to stop it from collapsing. Two men from the squad stayed there on guard and the rest of us went back to the prison.

The first thing I had to do when we got back to the prison was to sign the order to transfer the five condemned men to the convoy. At that moment a government representative, the public prosecutor and a doctor arrived. Only they could see the members of the execution squad. We sat in a room and the convicts were brought in one by one along an underground passage. Their hands were cuffed behind them and they wore striped prison uniforms and felt slippers. They were shivering, I don’t know whether from the cold or from fear, and their eyes were filled with such a depth of dread that I could hardly bare to look at them. I strove to keep calm, looking down with a very serious face and pretending to go through some documents I had with me. One after another, the prosecutor confirmed the particulars of the men, and then he told them that clemency had been denied and looked over at me. I understood that I should give some kind of order, but I was in such a state of consternation that it was all I could do to mutter some words under my breath and wave vaguely towards the convoy. Fortunately, my companions knew very well what they were supposed to do. They sat the men on the floor of the truck back to back with their legs open to prevent any show of resistance. The members of the special unit sat on side benches, guns at the ready, and the convoy started off.

We arrived back at the clearing sometime after midnight, parking at the edge of the glade about fifteen metres from the pit. The first convict was dragged out straight away. I stood dumbstruck by the grave. I peered in. It was deep and wider at the bottom. The prosecutor and the ministerial representative stayed in the car, observing through the window. One of the squad placed a loop of rope round the neck of the first convict, then held the man still while another gagged him. Pulling on the rope, they led him over to the edge of the grave where them made him lie face down on the ground. His head was hanging down into the pit. As the executioner pointed his pistol, his assistant pulled on the rope to bring the condemned man’s head up and help him aim. For a second, I saw in the muzzle flash how the bullet smashed into the base of prisoner’s skull. A fountain of blood spurted up. A hideous groan rent the silence of the night and then all was quiet again.

I don’t know whether from the cold or from fear, and their eyes were filled with such a depth of dread that I could hardly bare to look at them.

For a second, I saw in the muzzle flash how the bullet smashed into the base of prisoner’s skull. A fountain of blood spurted up. A hideous groan rent the silence of the night and then all was quiet again.

Oleg Alkaev, identity card photograph some years before he was transferred to Minsk. Kazakhstan, around 1985.

The doctor came over, took the man’s pulse and pronounced him dead. The official holding the rope gave it a tug and the body slipped into the grave. The process was quickly repeated with the second convict: the flash as the gunshot rang out, the gush of blood, the groan and the thud of the body as it fell. It happened five times. When the execution was over, the grave was quickly filled with the earth that had been piled on the tarpaulin and covered again with leaves and snow. Finally, the squad’s footprints and tire tracks were also concealed.

The spectacle of death played itself over and over in my head as we drove back to the prison. It was about three o’ clock in the morning. The next day was a working day, so I decided to rest a little. I lay down on the office sofa, turned off the light and closed my eyes. Almost immediately I was seeing the execution again, more real than ever. The spurting blood splashed my face, scalding me like boiling water. I opened my eyes and the nightmare faded. Then I heard a noise in the corner of the room. It sounded to me like a groan. I realized I was hallucinating, so I left the light on. I went on in this state for three days. It was not until I had drunk a good deal that I could finally sleep in the dark without nightmares. I had deliberately chosen to work over the new year holiday, so that my family would not notice any change in my behaviour.

What struck me as the cruellest thing of all that I saw that first day was that the condemned men who were still waiting their turn in the truck could hear each shot ring out as the lives of their companions were taken one by one. Each time it unhinged them, prey to a madness of terror. It was absolutely horrific both for the prisoners and for the members of the firing squad. I immediately decided that I must change the procedure. Even if they were prisoners and condemned to death, nobody had the right so nakedly to expose them to their approaching fate.

I could not change things right away, but within six months the executions in the forest had stopped and we had begun to carry them out indoors, although we still took the bodies to the same place for burial.

In Belarus, any prisoner who is condemned to death has the right to petition the President for clemency when the sentence is confirmed by the Supreme Court. It is their last, slim chance to escape execution, and all of them do it. The President reviews the cases of absolutely all of the condemned and makes the final decision to pardon them or not. If memory does not fail me, only one person was pardoned after 1994, the year when Lukashenko took over the presidency, and his sentence was commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment. Lukashenko is remorseless.

What struck me as the cruellest thing of all that I saw that first day was that the condemned men who were still waiting their turn in the truck could hear each shot ring out as the lives of their companions were taken one by one. Each time it unhinged them, prey to a madness of terror.

I could not change things right away, but within six months the executions in the forest had stopped and we had begun to carry them out indoors.

I also changed the moment at which a prisoner is told that the President has turned down his plea for clemency and that he is to be executed. I decided that this should be done only a few brief moments before his death. It worked like this: when I received confidentially the news that a pardon had been turned down, I had 30 days to execute the sentence. Only I knew who was to die and when. Not even my colleagues knew. I chose the day and the time, so I decided how much time was left to each prisoner. It was an enormous burden, and I must say that it was not at all easy. When the day finally arrived, I gave the order and the work of the executions unit began. The unit was made up of prison officers membership was secret. Meetings were arranged so that the absence of squad members from their posts would seem natural and would not raise any suspicions among their colleagues. They did their normal jobs during the day, only coming to the meeting place later at a certain signal.

Normally there were thirteen of us, although sometimes somebody might be sick or on holiday, so that there were only twelve. One drove, others dug the grave, another would stand guard, watching to make sure nobody turned up by accident at the burial site. Thirteen men was the minimum necessary. The one who was chosen as executioner did the shooting. I never did, because I had to give the orders.

The men would arrive at the meeting point with their service weapons. Some of the squad would go the execution site in a special car to prepare the room. Others went to the prison with the documents I gave them and arranged to take the convicts out of their cells. They were put in a specially prepared vehicle and were taken to the place were the executions were carried out. That was the critical time and the most dangerous, because the transport could be attacked while it was crossing the city. It was for that reason that I ordered the convicts out in their transport only when everything was ready, and only verbally to the men directly involved.

Once the condemned men arrived at the facility, they were put in a maximum security cell. The place was secret and I can’t tell you where it was. There was a room there with a table, behind which the public prosecutor, an official representing the Ministry of Interior and I would sit. A security guard would bring in the prisoner requested by the prosecutor. He would be asked for his particulars, and when they had been confirmed, the prosecutor or I myself would inform the man that his petition for clemency to the President of the Republic had been turned down and that the death sentence would be carried out. However, we did not tell him where or when he was to be executed. We simply ordered him to be taken away. The convict would think that it would probably be the next day or in a couple of days. But everything moved quickly from this point. The man would be blindfolded, turned around and taken into an adjoining room. As soon as the door closed behind him, two guards would force him to his knees and a third would shoot him in the back of the head.

the prosecutor or I myself would inform the man that his petition for clemency to the President of the Republic had been turned down and that the death sentence would be carried out. However, we did not tell him where or when he was to be executed. (...) As soon as the door closed behind him, two guards would force him to his knees and a third would shoot him in the back of the head.

Alkaev, second on the left, with comrades during his military service. Kazakhstan, around 1972.
Alkaev with the woman who would become his wife, Irina Nikolajevna. Kazakhstan, around 1970.

We used a normal pistol with a silencer. It was the kind of weapon that the special forces use. I had three such weapons, which I kept in a safe. The room was fitted with a wooden shield to prevent rebounds. Death was instantaneous. They didn’t live more than 30 seconds. They had no time to realize what was happening. It was all perfectly rehearsed to make sure everything went off quickly. As soon as one was finished, the next would be brought in. So I can say that I made the process a bit more humane. The prisoner had no time to realize where they were taking him, because everything was so quick, and it was all over in about two minutes. Before that, it took about two hours to load the men into the truck and drive out to the forest and the grave site. That was really barbaric.

Afterwards, we would draw up the documents certifying execution of the sentence, and the prosecutor, the Ministry of Interior official, a doctor and myself would sign. Naturally, a doctor had to be present even though it was only a formality, because after a man had been shot in the head any one of us could have pronounced him dead. Sometimes it took more than one shot, maybe two or three. Death had to be assured, and the first bullet did not always kill the prisoner outright.

The doctor would take his pulse and say, “You can sign the documents.” Then the lifeless corpse would be put in a body bag and taken away for burial. The site is secret. I know where it is, but I can’t tell you. It’s a professional secret. Even though I’m retired, I am still a government official and there are some matters I can’t disclose, like the place where the executions were carried out, the place where the prisoners are buried or the names of the executioners. And anyway, what for? They would never let them dig up the graves to recover the remains. It wouldn’t be allowed, because the bodies are never given to the families. That’s the law. It is a law issued by the Supreme Council of the Republic. It’s not my decision. It’s a practice that has been going on since the time of Stalin. Everything was secret then, and nobody has wanted to change things since.

The executions were never filmed; it wasn’t allowed, and anyway there was nothing to film. It’s not Hollywood. I never even witnessed another execution. Nobody goes because they want to. Not even out of curiosity. Who could want to see something like that? The people who do this job are not fiends; I lot of people might think so, but they would be wrong. The members of the squad suffered terribly. The psychological burden is very hard to bear. It’s true they were paid a bonus, but it wasn’t very much. Their wages are a professional secret too, so I can’t say how much, but in any case it wasn’t a lot of money. Not at all. The truth is I can’t clearly remember any more either, because Belarusian money changed so fast and it wasn’t worth much anyway. The extra money was enough for them to afford a drink, that’s all. Nobody drank on the job of course, but afterwards the men would get together in groups of three of four, each one with his buddies, and drinking gave them a way to let off steam. It was tough for me too. I drank sometimes. After each job we would go to a bar or drink in the car, and then everyone would go home.

At first it was just necessary, because the emotional strain is tremendous and it can be difficult to sleep afterwards. You lie there in bed, but your head is still there at the execution and you can’t switch it off. Since it didn’t happen every day though, just once or twice every quarter, you would get over it. Everything would go back to normal. It was just very upsetting. In spite of my experience, I am actually a very impressionable person by nature. Anyway, I couldn’t step aside for a single moment during the executions. I had to be there all the time, from the beginning to the end. And I had to give the orders. Nobody could shoot or do anything else until I gave them the order. They could only proceed under my orders.

It all became routine after the second or third time, however. The prisoner had been condemned to death, and if I didn’t do it, someone else would. It was the State that condemned them and whoever actually did the deed, the State would carry out the sentence. In the end of the day, the prisoners were criminals.

The people who do this job are not fiends; I lot of people might think so, but they would be wrong. The members of the squad suffered terribly. The psychological burden is very hard to bear. It’s true they were paid a bonus, but it wasn’t very much.

Oleg Alkaev. Berlin, 2013.

Everything was tough in that job, starting from the moment I would receive the letter from the President and had to decide when to execute the prisoner. I could give him 30 days more life or execute him on the first day. The hardest thing was seeing the mothers though, when they came to the prison and found that their sons were no longer there. I would watch them weep, overcome with grief. That was worse than the execution itself, because these people weren’t guilty of anything. Sometimes to console them, we would say their sons had been taken to work underground in a mine. A very dangerous mine. We told them they would have to stay and work there for a long time. That legend had been around for a long time, and many of the mothers believed it. Not all, but most.

The official document that was given to them contained the words, “Gone as sentenced.” Three words and that was it. There was no further explanation. How, when, where… nothing. The person who worked at the office was only authorized to say those three words. The rest was secret, even from my colleagues. If they asked about a prisoner, they were answered, “Gone as sentenced.”

Our relations with the death row inmates was quite distant while they were in prison. It wasn’t cruel but neither was it friendly. Otherwise things would have been impossible. There was no equality about the relationship. The men were treated strictly, but I can’t say they were ever deliberately mistreated.

Of course, we would take action to stop any improper or unlawful conduct, but in the main the men behaved very well. There was no reason to resort to violence, and in any case I had given strict orders against it. I did once have to remove one guard. Not me personally, but I had him dismissed because he displayed a certain unnecessary sadism. He was a member of my squad. He showed a certain sadistic bent before executions. Sometimes he would hit the prisoners or put their handcuffs on too tight, and things like that which I found unwarranted. So I had them take him off the detail. For a time he couldn’t understand why. He didn’t understand and he thought, “What’s the problem? The guy’s going to die now anyway, so who cares?” I told him, “Do your duty, no more and no less.” Actually, I had to remove two. One was a guard and the other a lieutenant. So I wouldn’t say that there was any violence. Everything stayed within the bounds of the law.

The hardest thing was seeing the mothers though, when they came to the prison and found that their sons were no longer there. I would watch them weep, overcome with grief. That was worse than the execution itself, because these people weren’t guilty of anything.

There was an obligatory daily visit and inspection of each cell to check that no prisoner was trying to tunnel out, that the doors were fast and things like that. Once each week I would personally visit each cell to speak with the prisoners and see whether they needed anything. But what can a person need when he knows he’s going to die soon? He is waiting for death! What do they feel? Who can say? Nobody can say. It is a very tough experience. They would have been willing to lose their arms and legs to stay alive. They only wanted to live. Because of that, physical discomfort and all of our little daily problems vanish for them, they just put them aside. Even medical problems. If a man has a toothache or falls ill, he will just ignore it. These inmates have other concerns. They are always very depressed.

The condemned men are not allowed to leave their cells, not even to go to the exercise yard. They are locked up all the time. Everything is communicated to them through the cell door. They only come out when they are taken to the banya –sauna– every ten days, or when they have visitors. They are allowed to receive visits from family once a month. It’s usually their mothers or fathers who go. Most often the mothers. But I didn’t give permission for visits; that was the head of the executions department. Sometimes a prisoner’s lawyer would come. The man would arrive in handcuffs, of course, and they would not be taken off at any time during the visit. They spoke by telephone through a glass screen. Those were all the comforts they had. What the law allowed.

Something else I did to improve conditions for the prisoners was to allow them to receive parcels. This was prohibited before I took up my post, but I changed the rules so they could receive up to eight kilos. Whenever a condemned man was given food, I would put off the execution date until he had finished it all. Strange though it may seem, receiving a parcel could influence whether or not a man lived another few days. If they were given sala or sausage of some kind, I would wait. It may sound strange, but this kind of thing sometimes did affect the date of an execution.

As for the cells, each one had two iron beds fixed to the floor. The prisoners weren’t allowed to sleep during the day. Lights-out was at 9 p.m. and them men were woken up at 5 a.m. During the day they would sit in their cells or pace around, read books and eat. There was also a washbasin and a toilet in each cell.

Minsk Northern Cemetery, where it is said the remains of executed prisoners may be buried.
Minsk, Sizo No. 1. A woman walks past the wall surrounding the maximum security prison, where Belarus’ death row inmates are held and executed.

El caso Sivakov

They came twice under orders from Sivakov, then Minister of Interior in Belarus, to pick up the pistol we used in executions. I didn’t know why they wanted it. The first time it was a colonel who came to get it with a written order, and the second it was a personal assistant of the minister, who came with verbal instructions. I knew very well what the protocol was and how to look after guns, so on both occasions I only handed the pistol over after it had been properly signed for in the register. I made sure there was a written record. The first time they came for the pistol was the 30th of April 1999 and it was returned on the 15th of May. The second time, they picked it up on the 16th of September.

A copy of the newspaper Pravda came into my hands in December, which carried an article about four disappearances in Belarus. One of the men involved turned out to be still alive. He was a former banker, who had managed to escape to London. The cutline beneath a photograph of Zakharenko, the former Interior Minister, said he had been missing since the 7th of May. There were also photos of Gonchar and Kasovsky, the first a deputy and the second a personal friend of his. They had both gone missing on the 16th of September. That called to my mind the date when they had come for the gun. The dates of the disappearances matched the days when the pistol had been in the hands of the minister, Sivakov. They had picked it upon on the morning of the 16th of September, and the same night Gonchar and his friend had gone missing. They left the sauna where they had been together, but they never came home.

Something unusual had happened before the Ministry requested the pistol. A colonel, Dima Pavlichenko, appeared with an order from the minister to allow him to witness an execution. He was a commandant in SOBRA, an elite unit. It was not in the least necessary that he should attend, but the minister insisted, so I invited him although I couldn’t understand this morbid interest. I knew that minister Sivakov and Pavlichenko were friends. On one occasion when Pavlichenko was expelled from the army, Sivakov had him readmitted and given a new posting.

I remembered him when I read in the newspaper that Zakharenko had been followed by a car, a red BMW, just hours before he disappeared. That was rare in those times. There weren’t many BMWs in Belarus, and still less red ones. It was a car that stood out. I knew perfectly well who had a car like that –Dima Pavlichenko. It had been given to him by Sivakov.

They came twice under orders from Sivakov, then Minister of Interior in Belarus, to pick up the pistol we used in executions. I didn’t know why they wanted it.

Putting this facts together, I came to the conclusion that Pavlichenko was involved in the kidnapping. Even so, he couldn’t have decided something like that on his own. He took orders from only two people, the minister Sivakov and the secretary general of the Security Council, Shayman. Considering how important they were, there was very little I could do. By that time, Sivakov had retired anyway. He was replaced by General Udovikov, who was appointed acting minister. Like a dutiful official, I went to Udovikov to explain to him what had happened. “I suspect that Zakharenko, Gonchar and Krassovsky were assassinated using the firing squad’s pistol,” I told him, recounting the whole chain of events that had led me to that conclusion. Udovikov was frightened and ordered me not to mention the matter again. “I know everything, but there is nothing I can do. What happened came from the top,” he said to me, pointing at the ceiling. Then he ordered me to get rid of the pistol, but I didn’t.

I began to suspect Shayman. He was secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, the second highest office of State. All of the power structures in the country obeyed him. I didn’t know what to do by this stage. The acting minister had refused to talk about the matter, and there was nobody else I could approach. It was a dead end. If I had gone to the public prosecutor or something like that, I would have disappeared too. One day the President’s head of security, Vladimir Naumov turned up out of the blue to see me. We were old friends, so I told him everything. I said I suspected that Sivakov, Shayman and Pavlichenko had been behind Zakharenko’s murder. “You are one of the few people who are really close to the President, you talk to him every day. Tell him that they’re doing terrible things behind his back. People have been killed. I can tell you they were murdered. They didn’t disappear. Pavlichenko killed them. And the murders were ordered by Sivakov or Shayman. I can’t believe it was Sivakov; he’s too weak. It must have been Shayman. Tell the President”. I also told him that I suspected they had been murdered with my pistol. “Imagine if they find a body and the bullet. The bullet would tell them what gun was used and who it belonged to. I would be arrested straight away, and nobody would find out what really happened.” I kept the gun, and that meant in a week or so I might find myself shut up in the basement of death row, and they would lose no time shooting me. They would have blamed me for all of the crimes. That could easily have happened. Or I might simply have disappeared, and that would have made me the fifth person to be kidnapped and murdered. Naumov heard me out and promised he would help.

Not long after he was appointed Interior Minister. He rang me himself and said, “That’s it. The wheels are in motion. Pavlichenko was arrested today.” It was true. Naumov himself had prepared the operation with the head of the KGB and the chief prosecutor. Pavlichenko was imprisoned in the KGB Sizo
on the 22nd of November 2000. But they made the mistake of not arresting Shayman too. So Shayman went to Lukashenko and somehow managed to convince him that it was all a plot against him and he managed to turn the tables. Pavlichenko was set free within twenty-four hours on the direct orders of the President. That was illegal, of course. There was no process or even any documents. They just opened the door and let him go. Anybody who had been involved in his arrest was fired –the head of the KGB, the chief prosecutor… Only Naumov was left in his post.

I also told him that I suspected they had been murdered with my pistol. “Imagine if they find a body and the bullet. The bullet would tell them what gun was used and who it belonged to. I would be arrested straight away, and nobody would find out what really happened.”

Shayman was made chief prosecutor, so all of the documents passed into his hands. Including the papers I had filed! I spent a year expecting them to come for me day or night. I thought about when and where they would kill me. I had to be careful about everything I did. My life was in danger and I always went about armed. My driver always had a pistol too. Sometimes I knew when they were following me, sometimes I didn’t. I made sure nobody could get close to me. I would have shot anyone who tried to get within three metres. Naumov was still minister and he helped me as best he could, even if only to offer moral support. He understood I had a right to defend myself. So the Ministry of Interior anyway had no part in following me. The KGB were involved though. They set up a conspiracy to plant heroin in my office and in my car. Luckily they weren’t willing to do it themselves, so they tried to get a prisoner to help them. They wanted to accuse me of drug trafficking, but the prisoner turned out to be a good guy, and he told me everything. He got nine years for that. They had promised him he would be declared mentally imbalanced and released if he did what they wanted. All he had to do was say he had received drugs from me. They chose him because he actually had reasons to hate me. He was a recidivist criminal, and years ago we had clashed over his disorderly conduct. But he refused to do what they told him. “I may be a jailbird,” he said, “but I’m not a snitch.” I have a lot of respect for him. You could say that a common criminal threw a spanner in the works of the all-powerful KGB. I’ve been fortunate to know a lot of good men.

When the 2001 election campaign began, some papers referring to the Pavlichenko case were stolen and fell into the hands of the opposition. They included the dossier of my interrogation and my report. These were compromising documents which showed just how deeply involved Shayman, Sivakov and Pavlichenko had been in the kidnapping and assassination of the missing politicians. They also clearly stated that they had been murdered with my pistol. At that time there were still opposition newspapers, and they published everything.

I realized I had only two options: I could do what they wanted and claim it was all a farce and that I hadn’t written or done anything, or I could run. I had only minutes to think it over, but I decided I wouldn’t deny anything. It seemed humiliating to me, and it would have meant acting against my conscience. I couldn’t do it. How could I look at myself in the mirror afterwards?

Then it became public knowledge that I was the head of the execution squad, and that was dangerous as well as unpleasant. Nobody knew, not even my wife and children, not even my closest colleagues. I was just the director of a penitentiary as far as anybody had ever known. But they never new it was me who directed the executions. I could have gone to live in some other town in Belarus where few people knew me, and that would have been the end of that. But in the end I decided to run. By this time they were watching me and following me, but I managed to give them the slip and escape to Moscow, and from Moscow to Berlin where I have stayed. Let’s say I was lucky. I used my experience to shake off the Belarusian secret service people who were on my tail, and I got out alive.

I am a political refugee here. My family and I have the right to live in Germany all our lives. I’m under the protection of the German government. It would be unthinkable for anybody to take a shot at me, so I don’t have to go about armed, although it is possible I might be poisoned, I suppose. Every year, I have worked to gather data and papers to prove my case. My only mission is to see those criminals behind bars. I don’t want anything in exchange. I don’t want power. I just want to get on with my life and write stories or something. Maybe I could become a fisherman.

Capital punishment doesn’t exist in Germany but the streets aren’t strewn with bodies. Nobody kills anybody. Murders are very rare here. Even Russia, which has a notoriously high crime rate, has accepted a moratorium on the death penalty. And Ukraine. And the whole of the European Union. But there has been no upsurge in violent crime. That shows that a country can get along without capital punishment. If I was sure that my country had a fair and one hundred per cent independent judiciary, and that appeals would be properly examined, then maybe I wouldn’t be against it. In the end of the day, countries like the United States apply the death penalty. But it takes forever before someone is actually executed there, and over fifteen years or so, a convict has the chance to prove his innocence or show mitigating circumstances. That is not the case in Belarus today. That is why I think it should be abolished. It’s not because I feel remorse or have a bad conscience. I don’t. We often feel sorry for prisoners, but we don’t think about the victims or how many people they may have cruelly murdered. I believe that’s because they look scary wandering free in the streets or during their trial, but once they’ve been found guilty and are shut up on death row, you do feel sorry for them. Even so, they are convicted murderers.

I have suffered psychological side effects, of course. I realize now that I never had a psychiatrist at hand, or anybody else to measure my level of stress. You think it won’t affect you. We often don’t feel our own pain, but those around us do. They can see that something’s wrong, that you are more irritable or depressed. I am OK though, in spite of everything. I don’t go around thinking about it all the time, even though every execution takes its toll. It may look like nothing, but it’s there. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, because it’s not normal to kill somebody who has done nothing to you. It’s unnatural. The execution of a death sentence is a kind of murder and a terrible burden for the executioners themselves. It’s difficult to kill without anger, without the heat of passion. An execution just doesn’t fit in the context of ordinary life. You can’t compare it to anything. And of course it isn’t easy to talk about. You leave everything behind in the prison. Outside nobody will talk about what’s happened.

The chain of events that follows an execution, the meetings with family, with mothers… It’s devastating. What can you tell the mothers? You can only listen to them, and that’s it. You can’t do anything. They lose control and turn hysterical. All you can do is wait for time to pass. All of these things take their toll.

The colleague who I replaced, who held my job before me, died when he was only 53. He was unstable and he couldn’t stop thinking about it all. He remembered and he suffered for it. When we saw each other, he would bring it up straight away. I would ask him, “Why are you always talking about that?” and he would answer that he couldn’t get it out of his head. He started drinking heavily when he retired, and one day he just didn’t get up. Everybody who was in this job before me died young, before the age of 60. I only know one who lived beyond 60 years of age. That was me. One of the executioners died at the age of 43. His heart gave out. It was terrible. But let’s not talk about this gloomy stuff any more. I wouldn’t want you to start feeling sad now.

Identity card photograph of Alkaev taken around 1995 before he started serving as director of Sizo No. 1 in Minsk.
Identity card photograph of Alkaev taken around 2001 after he had served five years as director of Sizo No. 1 in Minsk.

3.2. The Mothers

Mothers are informed only after the execution of their sons and they are denied any information about the whereabouts of their graves. These are inhumane and degrading practices, which makes them too into victims of capital punishment

Lyubov Kovaleva, mother of Vladislav Kovalev, executed in March 2012 after he was accused of being one of the perpetrators of the Minsk Metro bombing of 2011. Vitebsk, Belarus. March 2013.

Lyubov Kovaleva

A bomb exploded in the Minsk Metro at rush hour on 11th April 2011, killing fifteen people and wounding more than one hundred. From the outset, President Lukashenko announced that the purpose of the attack had been to destabilize the country and pointed to foreign terrorists as the possible culprits. The Office of Public Prosecutions described the bombing as a terrorist outrage. Twenty-four hours later, two 25-year-olds, Dima Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalev, were detained by the KGB. While in custody they were beaten and interrogated without the presence of a lawyer until they eventually confessed at five o’clock in the morning. Early on 13th April, Lukashenko announced on television that the detainees were young radicals and that they had confessed their guilt and would be punished to the full extent of the law. In the President’s own words, their motives remained ‘unclear’. He also described the police and KGB investigation as a ‘brilliant’ operation.

When her son was arrested, Lyubov set off immediately for Minsk. Without success she knocked on the doors at the KGB and the Ministry of Interior, seeking information and demanding to see her son. She was unable to do so until 9th September and then only through a glass screen, handcuffed and forbidden to talk about the case. Meanwhile, she tried to find a lawyer for Vladislav, which was no easy task. Nobody wanted to defend him. Finally, Stanislav Abracej answered her advertisement and she hired him. He has been a marked man ever since and refuses to talk about the case. He was able to interview his client only once for a total of two minutes. Kovalev gave him a paper, in which he claimed that his confession had been forced out of him by torture.

A shrine to the memory of Lyubov Kovaleva’s son Vladimir, executed at the age of 25, in a corner of the living room at her home. Vitebsk, Belarus. March 2013.

The trial began on the 15th of September. According to his mother, the court had already decided the pair were guilty even before hearings were opened. They were present at the trial, sitting in steel cages in full view of the court. The judge would allow not a single objection on the part of the defence, but he upheld every point the prosecutor made. The evidence was feeble. The traces of explosives found at Konovalov’s house did not match the bomb that had exploded in the metro station, and there was no sign of the bag allegedly used to carry the device or of the fingerprints of either of the accused. Nor were there any witnesses or contacts to implicate them in the crime. There was only a security camera recording showing a young man with a cap carrying a sports back. The prosecution insisted that this was Konovalov. According to the Russian secret service, however, the video may have been edited or otherwise manipulated. The case rested solely on the confessions obtained on the first day.

Konovalov and Kovalev were sentenced to death on the 30th of November 2011. Lyubov started an online petition to denounce their situation. She contacted human rights organizations and appeared on television in Poland and in Russia. She went to Strasbourg and appealed to the United Nations and the European Union, and she petitioned the President for clemency. He never answered, and on the 16th of March 2012 the two were executed. Kovaleva saw her son for the last time on the 11th of March. He looked nervous to her. On 17th March, she received his death certificate.

Vladislav’s mother has always defended his innocence. She describes her son as a trainee electrical engineer who was fatally sucked into the farce of the investigation and trial. He had no criminal record, and he was not a member of any political party or movement. Many believe that Lukashenko himself orchestrated the attack to boost his own flagging popularity and counter criticisms of vote rigging to win re-election by focusing attention on an external enemy. Vladislav and Dima were his scapegoats.

Svetlana Mikhailovna Zhuk. March 2013.

Svetlana Zhuk

In early 2009, Svetlana’s son, Andrei Zhuk, and an accomplice stole a shotgun, some shells and a machete. A few days later, on 27th February, they and a confederate used the weapon to hold up a security van carrying payroll cash to a collective farm. While the others held them down, Andrei shot one of the guards in the head and the other, a woman, in the shoulder and head. After killing them, the three fled with the money, worth the equivalent of some US$ 30,000, and fled to the town of Slutsk, where they shared out the loot and split up.

The three were known to the police from previous convictions, and it was not long before they were caught. They were found with a small quantity of methadone for personal use and each had his own share of the cash, still in the original bank wrapping. Andrei admitted his part in the crime from the outset and turned over the shotgun, now sawn off, to the police. Despite his cooperation with the police and although he was the father of a small child, his recidivism and the seriousness of his crimes convinced the regional court of Minsk to sentence him to death on the 17th of July 2009. He was twenty-five years old. One of his accomplices was sentenced to life imprisonment and the other to twenty years. Andrei’s lawyers appealed unsuccessfully, and on the 13th of November 2009 they formally petitioned the President for a pardon.

Andrei Zhuk’s death certificate, the only document received by Svetlana informing her of the execution of her son. No cause of death is stated, a line of hyphens being the only explanation given.

On 19th March 2019, Svetlana travelled to Minsk to take a parcel to her son. The prison officers told her that Andrei had been transferred and that she should not come any more. She should wait at home to receive notification from the court. This was how she learned that her son had been executed. On the following Monday, Andrei’s father suffered a heart attack and was rushed to hospital. He still refuses to talk about his son’s fate.

Meanwhile, Andrei’s mother started visiting all the cemeteries in Minsk to search for his grave. She had already filed a protest with the United Nations Human Rights Committee denouncing breaches of the presumption of innocence during the trial, but the matter still under consideration when Andrei was executed. She also claimed that Andrei was drunk when we has arrested but was not examined by a doctor. His interrogation went on until late in the night. Moreover, the Interior Minister, Vladimir Naumov, had publicly called the young men criminals long before a verdict was reached. It was also argued that Andrei had had to appear in court handcuffed in a cage. Human rights activists have recorded other similar rights violations in numerous trials held in Belarusian courts.

In his letters from prison, Andrei accepted the guilty verdict and made no attempt to justify his actions. However, he did have two small children, one of them born while he was in prison. Andrei never saw this child, and he wrote that he would not have committed the crime if he had thought about his children and his family, and that he had not planned to kill anybody. He had done it because he was afraid. He also complained that it was unfair he should be condemned to death when other prisoners guilty of the same crimes had been sentenced to twenty-five years or life imprisonment.

Svetlana in the living room of her flat in the mining town of Soligorsk with a photograph of her son Andrei Zhuk, who was executed in 2010.
Chimneys on the road from Minsk to Soligorsk. March 2013.