Former Belarusian operative under Lukashenko goes on Swiss trial over enforced disappearances

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GENEVA (AP) — A former member of Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko’s special security forces was going on trial Tuesday in Switzerland over the enforced disappearances of political opponents in the late 1990s — seen as a landmark case of international justice.

Yuri Harauski, a former member of a military unit known as SOBR, exited a tinted-window van wearing a hood as he entered the courthouse in the northern city of St. Gallen.

Activists have said the two-day trial marks a pivotal moment in international justice that could trigger prosecutions abroad of other Belarusian officials — including Lukashenko. The court case was brought under a rarely applied legal principle known as universal jurisdiction, under which foreign courts can prosecute severe crimes that happened in other countries.

Harauski will be tried over the enforced disappearances of Yuri Zakharenko, a former interior minister who was fired by Lukashenko in 1996; opposition leader Viktor Gonchar; and publisher Anatoly Krasovsky, said Trial International, an advocacy group that has spearheaded the case.

The defendant lives in Switzerland, where he applied for asylum in 2018. He has made high-profile confessions about his involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Lukashenko’s political opponents in 1999. The motives behind the confessions were not entirely clear.

An extract of the court filing, obtained by The Associated Press, indicated that prosecutors planned to seek a three-year prison sentence — of which two would be suspended — against Harauski for his alleged role in the disappearances.

Lukashenko’s regime has come under criticism for years, most recently over a crackdown against opposition leaders that began in August 2020 and support for Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine last year, among other things.