The protracted case of detained scientist Yuri Bandazhevsky continues to solicit international attention and serves as a reminder of how sensitive the Chernobyl issue remains for the Lukashenka regime.
Recently the opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya focused on the life of Bandazhesvky, the nuclear scientist and former rector of Gomel Medical Institute who was fired from his position on July 13, 1999, and subsequently received an eight-year prison sentence, allegedly for bribing students who registered at the Gomel Institute. His punishment was later reduced to five years with an expiry date of January 2006. Back in 1999, 18 scientists were put on trial, but Bandazhevsky’s case attracted the most attention. Though he was not affiliated with the military, the case was held in a military court, and he was condemned on the basis of two testimonies that, according to his lawyer, were obtained under duress.
Last May, Bandazhevsky was released from prison and began serving a two-year period of conditional freedom in a corrective labor settlement. His health has deteriorated, and according to the Belarusian Criminal Code, ill prisoners who have served two-thirds of their sentences have the right to be released. However, the Belarusian authorities claim that Bandazhevsky is healthy, and, according to his wife, he is being held prisoner at the personal behest of President Alexander Lukashenka (Narodnaya Volya, February 24).
In January, the authorities refused to grant Bandazhevsky an early release, reputedly because of his refusal to sign a statement acknowledging his guilt and because he still had some outstanding legal fees. Last October, according to this same account, he was admitted to a prison hospital with a stomach illness (described as pre-cancerous) and he suffers from atrophy in his arms and legs (International PEN, February 3). The Lukashenka regime has never been noted for its clemency, but its continued incarceration of this scientist seems particularly harsh.
Bandazhevsky, together with his wife Galina, had focused on the rate of cardiovascular sickness among children in the Gomel region since the Chernobyl disaster almost two decades ago. In 1999, he published the results of a study of the impact of Cesium-137, arguing that relatively low doses could result in cataracts, heart disease, and other maladies. He pointed out that a level of 50 bequerels per kilogram of a child’s weight could cause serious pathologies. Previously, concentrations of Cesium-137 that had risen 10-30 times above normal had not been considered dangerous (bellona.no, May 22, 2003). However, Bandazhevsky’s studies had a significant impact on the prognostications for the long-term health impact of the Chernobyl disaster: rather than an improving situation, the health picture, in his view, was getting worse.
Bandazhevsky also had criticized the selling of radioactive vegetables from the contaminated zone and maintained that the affected area — about 1.2 million hectares of land in Gomel, Brest, and Mogilev oblasts — was actually spreading as a result of forest fires and dust.
The Lukashenka regime has consistently maintained that the area contaminated by Chernobyl is diminishing as a result of the “natural” breakdown of radio-nuclides, a claim belied by the half-lives of the most prevalent elements, Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, of 29 and 30 years respectively. In May 2003, the government cancelled additional payments to those residing in the contaminated regions (an estimated 1.5 million people) on the grounds that the worst of their suffering was over (Charter 97, May 7, 2003). Bandazhevsky and other scientists (such as Professor Vasily Nesterenko of the Institute for Radiation Medicine in Minsk) have argued that the measure fails to include children born after Chernobyl who have suffered disproportionately from thyroid gland cancer.
Last November, Lukashenka also criticized the travel of children abroad for periods of recuperation, arguing that they return imbued with ideas and sentiments inimical to Belarusian ways: “We don’t need such foreign nurturing.” Instead, the president suggested, if an organization wished to help children in the Chernobyl region, they should send the funds directly to Belarus (svaboda.org, November 17, 2004).
But who would administer such monies? For the past decade, the president has continued a campaign of harassment of nongovernmental agencies dealing with Chernobyl, which have been subjected to KGB audits and the need to reregister with the Ministry of Justice. The campaign illustrates that the Chernobyl issue is identified directly with the opposition and considered a potential threat to the current administration.
Last April, the president attempted to offset the annual Chernobyl march in Minsk by embarking on a much-publicized visit to the contaminated zone that began five days before the anniversary date, and ensuring the people that if the area were unsafe, the president would not be allowed to visit there (Belapan, April 26, 2004). The publicity stunt fooled very few people, particularly when it coincided with a delay in permission being granted for the annual Chernobyl march in Minsk.
The Bandazhevsky case is the most notorious of a number of high-level political detentions in Belarus, because the scientist’s conclusions run counter to the political interpretation adopted by the government, i.e. that Chernobyl is in the past and that its consequences have been overcome. The reality is that by encouraging communities to reside in highly contaminated regions the regime has exacerbated an already appalling health situation in the republic.