'Don't kill my son. He is not guilty of bombing the metro'
The mother of a man condemned to death tells Shaun Walker in Minsk of her desperate fight for a reprieve
There is only one person who can stop the execution of Lyubov Kovalyova's 25-year-old son, Vladislav. Unfortunately for her, it is Alexander Lukashenko, the ruthless dictator who has ruled Belarus since 1994. He is not known for his compassion.
Ms Kovalyova spoke to The Independent in Minsk yesterday, before delivering a letter to Mr Lukashenko begging him to pardon her son, who was sentenced to death on Wednesday for alleged involvement in an April bomb attack on the Minsk metro system that killed 15 people. The court ruled he knew that his friend Dmitry Konovalov, also 25, was planning the attack and helped him to prepare, instead of reporting him to the authorities.
"The court case was purely symbolic, everything had already been decided," said Ms Kovalyova, wiping away tears as she perched on a chair in a Minsk apartment belonging to friends. "I can state with absolute certainly that my boy is innocent."
Konovalov was also given the death penalty, in a case so flawed there were howls of sarcastic laughter from the public gallery as the judge read his verdict. Belarus is the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty, and both men will be executed with a single bullet to the back of the head, unless Mr Lukashenko intervenes to grant clemency. After he publicly stated that the two should receive "the strictest punishment" before the court had even delivered a verdict, hopes that he will show compassion appear forlorn, but rights activists are praying that international pressure may help.
Ms Kovalyova was wearing a bright purple jumper and stripy green socks yesterday, perhaps to offset the sadness of her mood. But the worry lines on her tired face and the sorrow in her eyes were testament to the amount of distress that this 46-year-old woman has suffered in recent weeks, culminating in Wednesday's sentence. She says the judge "twisted" the evidence in the case beyond recognition, an observation backed up by independent observers. "There are so many things I would like to say to that judge," says Ms Kovalyova, with a deep sigh. "But I can't. My son is a hostage." The entire case was based on confessions given during the investigation, but Konovalov recanted in court and said he was pressured to sign. Konovalov remained silent during the entire three-month trial, simply staring blankly into the middle distance. His father and brother were also detained, and were accompanied to court by a security detail. They declined to offer any evidence. "They were put under huge pressure not to come out in support of their own son," says Ms Kovalyova. She says the Konovalovs' house, next to her own, is always under surveillance, and that the family is too scared to talk to her.
Ms Kovalyova is a single mother from Vitebsk, a small town in eastern Belarus. Vladislav lived at home until 2010, when he moved to Minsk to make a career as an electrician. "He was a quiet boy, never got into trouble, never had a bad word to say about anyone," she recalls. He was arrested immediately after the bomb blast together with Konovalov, who rights activists believe may have been tortured into confessing.
Ms Kovalyova says that Vladislav's state-appointed lawyer refused to meet with her, and when she approached other lawyers, they were too scared to take on the case. Eventually she found a young lawyer on the internet who was brave enough to argue for the defence, but he was given hardly any access to Vladislav. Ms Kovalyova has been allowed just one meeting with her son since April. She has been able to see him only from afar in the courtroom, when he was padlocked into a metal cage.
At midday yesterday, Ms Kovalyova, her 23-year-old daughter Tatyana, and a small group of well-wishers and journalists set off to deliver her petition to the Presidential Administration. But even handing over the letter was not possible without an appearance from the omnipresent KGB, the feared security service which has kept its Soviet-era initials. Half a dozen black-clad plain-clothed agents materialised and said it was illegal to conduct interviews in a public place. A girl in knee-high shiny white boots walked among those present and pointed a hand-held video camera in their faces. "She's my employee," said one of the KGB men. "We'll have a record of everyone who was here."
It was a chilling reminder that in Belarus, anyone who stands up for a victim can become a victim themselves, as evidenced by the recent jailing on spurious tax-evasion charges of a leading rights activist, who had in turn campaigned for the release of opposition politicians still held in jail.
In the end, Ms Kovalyova delivered the letter and now begins a nerve-racking wait to see if Mr Lukashenko will spare her son's life. "I appeal to you... to show clemency to my only son," reads her appeal. "I beg you to save my son. You are the only person who can do so."