An American lawyer went to lunch in Moscow. Now he is languishing in a prison cell in Belarus


Ziankovich’s wife, Alena Dzenisavets, said that according to the manager of the Nordic Rooms hotel, the men – all in civilian clothes – put a balaclava over his head and took him to a car in front of the hotel in the Moscow suburb of Ostankino.

She told CNN that Youras then crossed the Russian border in a three-vehicle convoy and traveled more than 700 kilometers (435 miles) to the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Dzenisavets says she reconstructed what happened to her husband through his court-appointed lawyer in Belarus. She has had no direct contact with Youras for almost three months.

Ziankovich’s lunch companion, Alexander Feduta, was arrested at the same time. He too was taken to Minsk. Feduta served as Alexander Lukashenko’s spokesperson in 1994 before falling out with the Belarusian leader. He then joined the country’s opposition.

A well-known writer in Belarus, he spent time in prison after participating in a protest in 2010.

Upon arrival in Minsk, Ziankovich was taken to the pre-trial detention center of the Belarusian KGB. He received occasional visits from the lawyer, but US consular officials were unable to visit him in the weeks following his eviction from a Moscow street.

For the Belarusian authorities, Ziankovich’s detention was part of a bigger game – and they were about to make some dramatic statements.

Six days after the kidnapping, President Alexander Lukashenko told Belarusian journalists of a plot to assassinate him and abduct his children, as part of a coup attempt.

“We have discovered the involvement of apparently foreign intelligence services, most likely the Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI,” Lukashenko said. “The agents flew from the United States, [someone called] Ziankovich. We followed them and watched them. ”

The US State Department quickly responded that “any suggestion that the US government was behind or involved in an assassination attempt on Lukashenka is absolutely false.”

Youras Ziankovich, in an undated photo provided by his wife, Alena Dzenisavets.

Two other people were arrested in connection with the alleged plot, including Olga Golubovich, a former employee of the Ziankovich law firm. They were all charged with “conspiracy or other actions committed to seize state power”; none pleaded.

Belarus is also seeking the extradition of five other people suspected of having participated in the US and Lithuanian plot.

Konstantin Bychek, head of investigations of the Belarusian State Security Committee, later announced that Ziankovich had confessed and cooperated in the investigation. Bychek told Belarusian state television that Ziankovich was involved in attempts to bribe members of the Belarusian security forces into joining the plot to overthrow Lukashenko.

Alena Dzenivasets insists that the charges against her husband are ridiculous and that if he confessed it was to save his life.

When the Belarusian KGB found out that Ziankovich was in Moscow, Bychek said: “We asked the [Russians] on the possibility of sending a group of Belarusian agents to Russia. ”

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Russia’s internal security service, the FSB, later said the arrests were a joint operation with the Belarusian KGB, aimed at preventing “illegal activities”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin backed Lukashenko’s claim of a coup plot, complaining in his annual State of the Union Address “that even such blatant actions have not been condemned by the self – collective saying the West. Nobody seemed to notice. Everyone pretends that nothing is happening. ”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov doubled down on the assertion last month, saying “it is difficult to imagine that US intelligence agencies could have ignored activity of this magnitude.” And Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin discussed the alleged assassination plot during a call with President Biden on April 13.

The U.S. Embassy in Minsk said it couldn’t discuss the case – and because Ziankovich has dual citizenship, consular officials aren’t automatically allowed to see him.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on February 22.

“Kill the president”

Dzenivasets is worried about his health; she says her husband’s lawyer told her that “Ziankovich’s blood pressure was rising every day.”

“He had his meds with him in a travel bag, but was not allowed to take them,” she told CNN.

For Lukashenko, the allegations of a US-sponsored coup plot served several purposes: They allowed him to portray the opposition as dependent on a foreign power and ready to commit acts of violence. . In addition, cooperation between the Russian and Belarusian security services has helped to establish a rapprochement with Moscow.

To promote the government’s narrative, Belarusian state television produced a melodramatic documentary, “To Kill the President”.

The program included secret footage of Ziankovich, filmed in the Avignon restaurant in Minsk in 2020. It is time-stamped on August 21 – nearly two weeks after the disputed election that led to an explosion of popular protests across the country.

Belarus' The contested August 2020 elections led to huge anti-government protests and calls for Lukashenko's resignation.

Ziankovich reportedly said: “I spoke to businessmen, I will see them after that, they will provide me with a restaurant for the first event. I also have the support of the Jewish capital of America.

But the audio in the film appears to have been tampered with. Ziankovich’s words don’t match the movement of his lips.

The narrator of the documentary declares: “He does not hide his objective. Its task is to reveal a vulnerability, to recruit and to provoke an armed mutiny.

At the time the secret footage was filmed, Ziankovich’s wife Alena said, the couple were visiting Belarus to see family members and finalize the purchase of a property. “We wanted to have a house where we could come and meet family and friends in the summer,” she told CNN.

She said they also wanted to vote in person in the Belarusian presidential election, which took place on August 9.

A few days after that lunch in Minsk, says Alena, Ziankovich was arrested. She had noticed that they had been followed for several days after attending one of the many protests which took place against the election result, which was widely regarded as fraudulent and which gave Lukashenko a fifth term in office. presidency.

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich appears on state television as critics denounce his detention as a

Youras served ten days of what has been called “the administrative arrest”. Alena says her husband went on a hunger strike while in detention and once released he headed straight for the Polish border.

Soon after, she told CNN, the couple decided to close their Minsk office “because it was becoming dangerous for Youras to come to Belarus, and because we didn’t want to support the dictatorship by paying rent, utilities, taxes “.

Ziankovich has long opposed Lukashenko as a member of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) party. He was granted political asylum in the United States in 2011 and became a citizen in 2017, but has remained in contact with a number of Belarusian opposition activists. In 2016, he ran for election to the Belarusian House of Representatives and has previously attempted to raise funds in the United States for BPF.

His decision to travel to Moscow for a number of meetings in April – using his Belarusian passport – gave authorities in Minsk the chance they expected: to present at least some of their opponents as the tools of hostile governments.

It is still not clear when Ziankovich and his co-defendants will be tried.

And his wife doesn’t know when she will be able to speak to him, let alone see him. The last time they spoke was on April 11, when he called her at her home in Houston to say goodnight, hours before leaving for that fateful lunch with Alexander Feduta.


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