The European Union, or EU, representatives, who are part of the EU's Minsk diplomatic mission, are visiting regions of Gomel and Mogilev — the Belarusian districts most severely contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl explosion — from May 21 to 23, Bandazhevsky, the founder and chancellor of the Gomel State Medical Institute published in 1999 the results of years worth of research on the clinical consequences of cesium-137 — one of the most radioactive elements released by the disaster — impacts on human organism. His results showed that it leads to heart disease, cataract, early ageing and other maladies.
But his research jeopardized the Belarusian authorities' intention to recommence farming lands contaminated by Chernobyl. Just before his arrest in 1999, Bandazhevsky had harshly criticized official researches, sponsored by the Belarusian government, which allocated only 1bn roubles for "scientifically and practically useful research," and said the remaining scientific budget of 17bn was wasted. Bandazhevsky also argued that Belarus was engaged in a hidden scam of selling and exporting radioactive vegetables along with non-contaminated products — a practice he viewed as sheer folly.
Bandazhevsky and his wife Galina examined cardiograms of children and carried out series of autopsies in the forensic morgue in Gomel. The scientific results proved that, after the Chernobyl accident, cardiovascular system sickness rate increased by four times.
Prior to Bandazhevsky studies, increases of cesium-137 concentrations from 10 to 30 times in vital human organs were considered insignificant. He proved, however, that such concentrations lead to pathological abnormalities. For instance, a pathology can be seen when cesium is accumulated in a human organism at the rate of only 30-50 Bq/kg. Autopsies of one-year-old children in Gomel showed high levels of radiocesium in their organs — up to 6000 Bq/kg, which indicates a severe radioactive toxic syndrome, both among foetuses and newborn babies.
|Northern Europe: Ground deposition of cesium 137 after Chernobyl Accident|
With 10m total population, Belarus's approximately 2m people, including 500 thousand children, live on land contaminated by Chernobyl, which made more than 25 percent of Belarus's forest and farming areas radioactive. Official data say about 1.2m hectares of land that is still used for farming purposes is contaminated with cesium-137 at the rate of 37 kBq/m2.
In Bandazhevsky's opinion, the contamination is widening — cesium and other isotopes are spread by forest fires and dust. Different forecasts predict a peak of various diseases caused by Chernobyl between 2005 and 2010.
|Distribution of cesium-137 fallout in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine after the Chernobyl explosion|
"For a month nobody knew, where he was, until we found him at a detention centre in Mogilev, 140 kilometres from his home in Gomel," said Pogonyaylo.
In Mogilev, Bandazhevsky was put under tremendous psychological pressure: He was questioned at night, made to sleep on the cold floor of a detention cell, wrapping himself with newspapers for some warmth. On the 23rd day of this systematic humiliation, Bandazhevsky, whose lawyer hadn't been permitted by authorities to see him, was charged, not with terrorism, but rather with taking bribes from students that were seeking admission to the his Gomel State Medical Institute.
"Bribery doesn't relate to the decree N21, under which Bandazhevsky was arrested. That shows again, how groundless and illegal Belarusian authorities may act," said Pogonyaylo.
Though Bandazhevsky had no relation to the army, his case was thrown to the Military Courts because one of the people accused with Bandazhevsky was a military reservist. The court sentenced Bandazhevsky to eight years in prison. The independent experts present at the court case registered eight violations of the Belarusian Procedural Criminal Code, and the main witness for the prosecution recanted his testimony. In spite of that, Bandazhevsky has been serving a hard labour sentence since June, 2001.
"We think, Bandazhevsky's conviction was organized by Lukashenka's government in order to eliminate a researcher whose results harshly conflicted with governmental policies, ignoring the real harm of Chernobyl," Belarusian Helsinki Committee representatives said in a telephone interview.
Other Pressures at the Belrad Institute
Bandazhevsky conviction isn't the only attempt by Belarusian authorities to silence an alternative view on Chernobyl's consequences. Health ministry pressure to close the non-governmental radioactive safety Belrad Institute in Minsk continues to this day.
Like Bandazhevsky, the researchers of Belrad, under the direction of nuclear physicist Vasily Nesterenko, argue that authorities underestimate radiation doses Belarusian citizens are currently subjected to, especially children. The institute carries out monitoring of contaminated areas and works hard to produce pectin-based medication for the eradication of cesium from children's bodies.
"My husband doesn't endure the prison conditions", Bandazhevsky's wife Galina — who is a doctor — said in an interview with Belarusian media. By her accounts, the professor is in a deepest depression. "Apathy changes with periods of euphoria, he is extremely pale, his hands tremble," she said.
"I don't have hopes on the reversal of verdict, but isn't that possible to alleviate the punishment? I'm afraid, left in such conditions he will go mad in half a year, while what he achieved in radiobiology is unique, his experience is invaluable, it should be used".
Bandazhevsky's lawyer Pogonyaylo agreed. "He is depressed, restrained: he wants to do research. Even in detention, Bandazhevsky wrote a series of scientific articles, which were published by his wife," said Pogonyaylo in an interview. "Now, in prison, he has no possibility to write. The authorities simply don't understand what a salutary role Bandazhevsky's research can play."
As a Corresponding Member of Belarusian Academy of Medical Sciences Bandazhevsky has been awarded three prestigious international prizes, including the Albert Schweitzer Golden Medal. In February 2003 he was declared a honorary citizen of France. The European Parliament has issued him a Liberty Passport, entitling him to free entry to any of the European Union states.
Recently Amnesty International published a statement demanding the unconditional and immediate release of Bandazhevsky, whom the organization has declared Prisoner of Consciousness. In Amnesty's view, the Bandazhevsky case is not only a challenge to justice, but a threat to the right to know truth about the impacts of radiation on human life and a threat to scientists' right to pursue controversial research and publish results.
"Independence of scientific research is no less an important democratic principle than objectivity of Themis [goddess of justice]. Reprisals against Bandazhevsky violates both of these those principles," said Amnesty in a statement.
Environmentalists in Russia and Belarus have several times addressed President Lukashenka, the Belarusian Supreme Court and the General Prosecutor's Office. French President Jacque Chiraque asked Russia's president Putin to plead Bandazhevsky case with Lukashenka, and wrote a letter to Belarusian President, in which Chiraque mentioned his personal invitation to Bandazhevsky to be his guest in France.
But as Russian Professor Alexey Yablokov, who once worked as President Yeltsin's environmental adviser, told Bellona Web, "all these actions [by environmentalists] don't work, and, to say precisely, the result is vice versa. Lukashenka is glad that he can make the whole world angry and make them ask his help."
In Yablokov's opinion, it is possible to influence Belarusian authorities through the apparat of the Union of Russia and Belarus, an agreement creating, in effect, one country, signed by the presidents of both countries in 1999.
"But the bureaucrats won't react to non-governmental organizations, we need to organize an appeal from the Russian Academy of Sciences", Yablokov confesses.
A pattern of harassment
"Lukashenka's regime, with whom Russia united, isn't afraid of the international public opinion. That is a dictatorship, coarsely infringing upon the liberty of information", the famed Russian environmentalist Alexander Nikitin said.
A former submarine officer and nuclear safety inspector, Nikitin was arrested in 1996 and charged with high treason for his contributions to a Bellona report on the abysmal nuclear safety record within the Russian Northern Fleet. After 11 months in jail and four years firing the courts, he was fully acquitted in 2000.
Today Nikitin is still engaged in environmental and human rights issues in Russia. He is the head of the St. Petersburg-based organisation the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, or ERC, representing Bellona Foundation in Russia. The organisation is engaged in environmental and nuclear safety projects, as well as in several human rights cases, most notably the case of Grigory Pasko, a Russian journalist who was convicted to four years for treason on charges similar to those Nikitin was charged with. The bulk of Pasko's work concerned illegal nuclear waste dumping practices by Russia's Pacific Nuclear Submarine Fleet.
Pasko was released on parole in January 2003 and currently works as editor-in-chief of the "Ecology and Rights" magazine published by ERC Bellona.
In the cases of Nikitin, Pasko and Bandazhevsky, courts flagrantly violated the rights of the accused. The Nikitin and Pasko cases await the consideration of such violations at the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. Belarus isn't a member of the European Council, and the objectivity of the Belarusian Military Court in the Bandazhevsky case will be considered by the UN Human Rights Committee. The Bellona Foundation has no doubts about what the results will be. Bellona believes that the Strasbourg Court and UN Human Rights Committee will characterize these violations for what they are.
The Belarusian President's specific competence
One factor arousing anxiety, however, is that Bandazhevsky is waiting for the UN Committee's decision in prison. Yesterday Bellona Web interviewed president Lukashenka's press secretary Natalya Petkevich by telephone.
When asked, does Lukashenka read letters demanding release of the scientist and whether he is going to heed the international request, Mrs Petkevich answered: "That is not the president's business! About Bandazhevsky address the law enforcement bodies." When questioned further about whether granting amnesty or pardon lies within the president's competence, Petkevich said that "yes, it is in president's competence. But that's not the business of our president."