Investigation, Speculation Dwarf Leads In Belarus Blast Case

By Jan Maksymiuk

Investigators in Belarus appear to have few leads as they try to track down whoever was responsible for a bombing earlier this month at an outdoor concert attended by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Police wasted little time detaining a dozen opposition activists in the immediate aftermath of the Independence Day blast, which injured about 50 people.

But authorities have since released all of them without filing charges, and police are continuing with a massive dragnet that reaches into precincts all over the capital.

The July 4 attack, using a homemade bomb that sprayed nuts and bolts for hundreds of meters, has already led to a major reshuffle in the government.

Among the first to feel the wrath of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who was in the vicinity of the blast, was Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman. Despite having been Lukashenka's closest aide since the beginning of his presidency in 1994, Sheyman was dismissed and replaced with KGB Chairman Yury Zhadobin. Lukashenka's chief of staff, Henadz Nyavyhlas, subsequently lost his job as well.

Opposition activists who were targeted include former members of the Belarusian Association of Military Servicemen, an organization established in 1991 and outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1996.

Illya Bohdan, a 21-year-old Belarusian Popular Front activist, was released on July 20 along with his 22-year-old colleague, Anton Koypish, after serving 10 days of detention. Bohdan told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the number of suspects being held in connection with the case at a prison on Minsk's Akrestsina Street appeared to number in the hundreds.

"In the end, all the people who were kept behind bars as suspects in this criminal case were called political [detainees]," Bohdan said. "There were students as well as people who violated the law in some way in the past. It was a roundup, and it's difficult for me to say what its purpose was."

The news came amid unconfirmed reports of law-enforcement officers fingerprinting students and lecturers at chemistry faculties of Belarusian universities.

In a search for clues, police last week began visiting ordinary Minsk residents asking about their whereabouts at the time of the Independence Day concert and whether they might have noticed anything that could help solve the crime.

Estimates have placed the number of people at the Independence Day concert at 500,000, and police officers were conspicuous in many parts of the city in the days after the explosion.

Skeptics suggest the widespread interrogations are unlikely to further the case, and could be intended more to send a psychological message to the public.

But police general and current legislator Mikalay Charhinets defended the oblique methods as an essential means of gaining needed information. "There is no other way out," said Charhinets, "such work with the population [in such cases] is envisaged in all other countries of the world."

On July 19, Prosecutor-General Ryhor Vasilevich appeared to confirm to journalists that the operation had yet to uncover any major clues. "People who are detained are being questioned, but this doesn't mean that they are to blame," Vasilevich said. "One cannot solve a crime while just sitting in an office and examining papers."

He added that "work is being done throughout the country [and] let's hope that it produces a result."

Vasilevich declined to say how many people had been detained in connection with the bombing case.

Meanwhile, speculation continues over who might be behind the blast and who could have benefited from it.

"Nasha Niva" reported last week that the state-controlled television channel ONT posted a poll on its website about who was behind the attack but removed it a few hours later. Of the 810 people who had responded, nearly 80 percent believed that the authorities had orchestrated the blast. Less than 4 percent blamed the opposition, while 10 percent blamed "hooligans" and 7.5 percent pinned the blame on "terrorists."

One of the theories around the blast asserts that the personnel decisions made by Lukashenka after the bombing reflected infighting in Lukashenka's inner circle between Sheyman and Viktar Lukashenka, the president's eldest son, who was appointed to the Security Council in January 2007.

Whoever the culprit, many independent commentators claimed that the blast exposed a fundamental weakness in Belarusian law enforcement. Those critics suggested that with police and security officers trained primarily to suppress or preempt political dissent, they are glaringly ineffective in solving criminal cases.

"They have actually become good at getting to know what people whisper to each other in bedrooms, but sleep through a bolt from the blue," political commentator Alyaksandr Klaskouski wrote in "Nasha Niva" on July 19.