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2020.12.16 16:34

Can Lithuania put Belarusian regime officers behind bars?

Julius Palaima, LRT.lt2020.12.16 16:34

The Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s Office has launched a pre-trial investigation into crimes against humanity by the Belarusian regime. But can the case be successful?

Lithuania launched the probe following a complaint by a Belarusian citizen, Maxim Chroshin, who turned to the country’s authorities after fleeing to Vilnius, alleging he was beaten and tortured by the Belarusian security forces.

“It is a good start. I want the affected people, who are currently in Lithuania, to come forward as I did. We cannot remain silent,” Croshin told BNS.

But such cases can take decades.

Lithuania began the investigation under universal jurisdiction, enshrined in international treaties, such as the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and the Geneva Convention.

Under similar circumstances, Lithuania conducted an investigation into the Soviet military crackdown in Vilnius on January 13, 1991, that left 14 people dead. But the trial only concluded in 2019.

The process was suspended several times, and as Russia refused to cooperate and later launched criminal proceedings against Lithuanian judges, almost all of the 67 Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian citizens were sentenced in absentia.

Read more: Occupied but not silenced. January 13, 1991: the night when Soviets stormed LRT

The proceedings initiated by Lithuania against Belarusian security forces, meanwhile, were “a small but important step to ensure that the [regime’s officers] could not enjoy impunity,” Justinas Žilinskas, a law professor at Mykolas Romeris University, told LRT.lt.

According to him, the effectiveness of such measures will depend on future events in Belarus.

The investigation “creates an international legal environment that could be used in the prosecution of such individuals if they leave Belarus or the regime collapses,” added Žilinskas.

No hope of prosecution in Belarus

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main leader of the Belarusian opposition who was forced to flee to Vilnius, welcomed Lithuania’s move and called on other European countries to follow suit.

“Not a single case can be forgotten, all cases must be investigated,” Tikhavoskaya told BNS.

But the investigation in Lithuania will also depend on international support.

“I hope that other countries will help in gathering evidence on crimes against humanity” in Belarus, said Saulius Verseckas, a chief prosecutor in Lithuania.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) is now working towards establishing an effective research centre to investigate crimes against humanity in Belarus, according to the organisation’s Moscow Mechanism rapporteur Wolfgang Benedek.

The mechanism, established in 1991, allows the organisation to send expert missions to assist investigations.

During the National Human Rights Forum in Lithuania earlier this month, Benedek expressed “hope that different institutions will coordinate their action”.

“The most important thing is to hold the responsible parties accountable for what is happening in Belarus. There can be no impunity,” he added.

Meanwhile, repressions in Belarus are getting worse and an international investigation is critical, said Enira Bronitskaya, a lawyer at the Belarusian human rights organisation Human Constanta.

“We support the idea of any investigative body because currently, we have no hope that crimes against humanity could be investigated in Belarus” by the country’s authorities, Bronitskaya said.

Read more: Surviving captivity in Minsk. Belarusian detainee recalls abuse and endless beatings

“The international community could work with human rights organisations to preserve key documents. We hope that there will be a mechanism to protect people,” she added.

At present, Belarus does not have the judiciary that could deal with human rights abuses and ensure the rule of law, said Dainius Žalimas, chairman of the Lithuanian Constitutional Court.

“Courts must be impartial. There is no such judicial power in Belarus. We cannot call the bodies that they have there proper courts,” Žalimas explained.

“Unfortunately, we do not have effective measures to stop [violence by the Belarusian regime],” he added.

“But we can make an international effort to gather information on crimes in Belarus and use it in the future. But before the international tribunal is established, Belarusians themselves need to restore the rule of law in their country,” said Žalimas.

Read more: Lithuania's Belarusian torture probe sets good precedent – FM

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