Updated at 11:56,07-12-2016

Trial of Awtukhovich, Asipenka to Begin on March 10

The trial of Vawkavysk businessman Mikalay Awtukhovich and his associate Uladzimir Asipenka will begin at the Supreme Court of Belarus on March 10.

As Mr. Awtukhovichs lawyer, Pavel Sapelka, told BelaPAN, judge Alyaksey Tsyatsyukhin will preside over the trial.

He said that the proceedings would be open to the public, but the judge could order the trial held behind closed doors if either the prosecution or the defense requested this.

In November 2009, the pair were charged with preparations for an act of terrorism in addition to the previously brought charges of perpetrating a series of arsons and explosions targeting the property of local officials in Vawkavysk, Hrodna region.

Messrs. Awtukhovich and Mr. Asipenka were arrested by personnel of Almaz, an elite anti-terror police unit, in armed raids in their hometown of Vawkavysk in February 2009.

The interior ministry announced after six months that Mr. Awtukhovich was charged with making preparations a few years ago for murdering Uladzimir Sawchanka, chairman of the Hrodna Regional Executive Committee, and Deputy Tax Minister Vasil Kamyanko.

The 46-year-old Awtukhovich staged a hunger strike between April 16 and July 16, protesting his detention and demanding that the case should be either referred to court or all those under investigation in the case should be released on their own recognizance.

Mr. Awtukhovich, a veteran of the USSRs Afghanistan war and a holder of three combat medals, was among civil society activists who petitioned the government in January 2009 to restore state benefits for the veterans of the war. Mr. Awtukhovich refused to accept a jubilee medal that the Belarusian government distributed to Afghanistan veterans on the occasion of 20 years since the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from that country.

In 2004, Mr. Awtukhovich unsuccessfully ran for Parliament.
Speaking to reporters in January, Lyudmila Hraznova, leader of the Lithuanian-registered Human Rights Alliance, described Messrs. Awtukhovich and Asipenka as "symbolic sacrifices" of the Belarusian authorities.

The activist said that there are "traditionally" two or three people held in custody for political reasons in Belarus.

"Earlier, such people were arrested purely under political articles of the Criminal Code, whereas now a kind of mimicry takes place," she noted. "The authorities say that Awtukhovich and Asipenka are behind bars for preparations for an act of terrorism against the chairman of the Hrodna Regional Executive Committee, Uladzimir Sawchanka, and Deputy Tax Minister Vasil Kamyanko, but rights activists view them as political prisoners."

These are "exemplary arrests and symbolic sacrifices that the authorities offer every year to ensure that civil society and political opposition undergo a psychological stress and scale down their activities," she said.