MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus, the only European country still to carry out state executions, on Wednesday sentenced two men to death for a bomb attack at a metro station in Minsk which killed 15 people and wounded scores of others.
Rights organizations had urged authorities in the ex-Soviet republic not to impose the death sentence on factory workers Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov, both 25, arguing that their two-month trial had not met international standards.
Relatives, many of whom walked away from the courtroom in tears, denied the two men had carried out the attack, the worst such incident in post-Soviet Belarus. They said the guilty parties were still free.
Only a pardon by President Alexander Lukashenko can now save the pair from execution -- carried out by shooting in Belarus -- since the judgment was delivered by the Supreme Court and so cannot be appealed.
Konovalov, a lathe operator, was found guilty of “terrorism” for having planted the bomb and then detonating it by remote control on a platform at evening rush-hour at Minsk’s “October” metro station on April 11 this year.
Kovalyov, an electrician, was convicted of complicity by supplying explosives and failing to tell police when he knew a criminal act was being prepared.
The two childhood friends were said by the prosecution to have dabbled illegally with explosives for years and also been behind blasts in 2005 in their home town of Vitebsk and a separate bomb attack at Independence Day celebrations in Minsk in 2008.
Describing the two accused as “an exceptional danger to society,” judge Alexander Fedortsov said: “The court sentences (them) to the extreme punishment, death by execution.”
Authorities say they do not see any political undercurrents to the bomb attack which was unprecedented in the tightly-policed country which has no internal terrorism problem or ethnic conflict.
But it coincided with unusual tension following a police crackdown on the opposition and a growing currency crisis.
Lukashenko, an autocratic leader who has ruled since 1994 with an iron grip, used the attack at the time to warn of attempts to destabilize the country of 10 million. He enjoys extraordinary freedom of powers and is in complete control of the court system.
Kovalyov’s mother, Lyubov, who has led a campaign to try to save the two accused, told journalists: “The charges are false. We can not allow this (execution) to take place.” Wiping away tears, she said she would appeal to Lukashenko for a pardon.
Earlier she said that confessions attributed to the two accused had been made under duress in pre-trial interrogation.
“While they try to persuade people that my son and his friend should be shot, the real criminals are going free,” she said in a statement.
The rights organization, Amnesty International, said the trial had failed to meet international standards for fair trials and there were serious concerns that both men had been ill-treated to force them to confess.
“Belarus has a flawed justice system and routinely flouts international fair trial standards, increasing the risk of a miscarriage of justice and of executing an innocent person,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director.
“The crime they were found guilty of was barbaric, but their punishment should not be the same ... The victims of the April 11 attack and their families deserve justice, not revenge,” said Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland in a statement.
He urged Belarusian authorities to declare an immediate moratorium on state executions.
Rights organizations say about 400 people have been executed in Belarus in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, including two convicted murderers last year.
In the past 16 years, Lukashenko has pardoned only one person condemned to death.
The two accused, held in a metal cage surrounded by police guards, showed no emotion when sentence was delivered. There were cries of “not true” and “butchers!” from the public area when the judge read out the sentence.
Execution is carried out by shooting with a pistol. Relatives are told only after sentence has been carried out and those executed are buried in a secret location.
The court was held in a hall used by actors for rehearsals, with the accused on a stage together with the judge, lawyers and other court officials, lending a theatrical impression to proceedings.
Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Rosalind Russell