Summary and Current Status
Belarusian nuclear medical specialist Yuri Bandazhevsky was conditionally released from custody on August 5, 2005, after having served four years of what had originally been an eight-year sentence for allegedly accepting bribes from students seeking admission to the Gomel State Medical Institute. The CHR believes that Professor Bandazhevsky—who was rector of the Gomel State Medical Institute at the time of his arrest—was actually targeted for his outspoken criticism of Belarusian government policies regarding the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the local population. Throughout his ordeal, Professor Bandazhevsky always maintained his innocence.
After his release, Professor Bandazhevsky returned to his home in Minsk, where he was ordered to remain under the control of the Belarusian authorities for five years. His conditions of release included having to report regularly to the police for six months and being prohibited from assuming any managerial or political functions.
While Professor Bandazhevsky reportedly was told that he could resume his scientific work, the Belarusian authorities informed him that they would garnish his wages until he paid a total of 35 million rubles (approximately U.S. $17,000). The court had ordered Professor Bandazhevsky to repay this amount, claiming it represented a portion of the bribes that he allegedly received. Given that Professor Bandazhevsky had always maintained his inoocence of all the charges brought against him, he believed that, if he paid the fine, he would in principle be admitting that he was guilty. To relieve him of this dilemma, the French nongovernmental organization Commission de Recherche et d'Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité (CRIIRAD) paid the fine in full in September 2005. Also, because of the condition that he not assume a position of responsibility, Professor Bandazhevsky found it impossible to resume his scientific work.
In April 2006, after receiving permission from the Belarusian government to emigrate to France, Professor Bandazhevsky accepted a position as visiting professor at the University of Auvergne in the city of Clermont-Ferrand working in his field of expertise; he and his wife moved there on April 21. (During his imprisonment, Professor Bandazhevsky had been made an honorary citizen of Clermont-Ferrand by its mayor.) It is our understanding that Professor Bandazhevsky is continuing to pursue his work on the health impact of chronic exposure to low levels of radiation. In March 2012 he was invited to present a lecture on the subject in Japan, sponsored by the Radiation Defense Project.
Professor Bandazhevsky founded the Gomel State Medical Institute and was serving as its rector at the time of his arrest in July 1999. His scientific work focused on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the health of the people living in and around the city of Gomel, a region close to the nuclear reactor and thus seriously affected by its radioactive emissions. He reportedly designed several large-scale scientific research projects examining the causes of diseases affecting people living in the contaminated areas, with a particular emphasis on children.
According to Amnesty International, Professor Bandazhevsky was outspoken in his criticism of the Belarusian authorities' handling of the Chernobyl disaster's impact on the population's health and had repeatedly stressed the need to find "innovative solutions" to the problem. He reportedly was particularly critical of the way that the Ministry of Health spent the scant resources available for research in this area. Shortly before his arrest, Professor Bandazhevsky wrote a report about research conducted by the Belarusian Ministry of Health's Scientific and Clinical Research Institute for Radiation Medicine on the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. In this report, he criticized the manner in which the government's research was carried out and its conclusions. On the night that Professor Bandazhevsky was arrested, police officers reportedly searched his home and confiscated his computer, books, and files related to his scientific work.
Professor Bandazhevsky was initially arrested at his home in Gomel on July 13, 1999, by several policemen. He was arrested under the presidential decree "On Urgent Measures for the Combat of Terrorism and Other Especially Dangerous Violent Crimes." On August 5, 1999, however, Professor Bandazhevsky was formally charged under Article 169 (3) of the Belarusian Criminal Code with allegedly accepting bribes from students seeking admission to the Gomel Medical Institute. He was held for more than five months in pre-trial detention under harsh conditions that included temporary isolation, a poor prison diet, and no access to legal counsel. During his detention he reportedly suffered from heart ailments, stomach ulcers, and depression and lost approximately 44 lbs, resulting in his hospitalization. Professor Bandazhevsky was conditionally released from prison on December 27, 1999, pending trial.
In February 2001, Professor Bandazhevsky was brought to trial in Gomel. On June 18, 2001, the Military Board of the Belarusian Supreme Court convicted him and sentenced him to eight years' imprisonment. His property was confiscated, and he is prohibited from exercising his political rights and assuming any managerial position for five years following his release. According to reliable reports, the four-month trial failed to meet international fair trial standards in a number of important ways. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus, which observed his trial, cited numerous violations of the Belarusian Criminal Code during Professor Bandazhevsky' s pre-trial detention and trial, including: (1) the violation of his right to defense because he was denied access to counsel during his entire pre-trial detention; (2) evidence was taken in a manner that violated domestic law; (3) evidence was unreliable because it was based on unsubstantiated statements from one person; (3) no material evidence was produced by the prosecution to substantiate their claim that Professor Bandazhevsky accepted bribes alleged to have been the equivalent of approximately U.S. $26,000; and (4) the time, place, and conditions of the alleged crime were not specified. Furthermore, the vice rector of the Gomel Medical Institute, who had made the allegations again Professor Bandazhevsky, formally withdrew them, stating that he had made them under duress while being interrogated by the authorities.
On November 20, 2001, Professor Bandazhevsky’s petition for a presidential pardon reportedly was rejected.
Professor Bandazhevsky was originally held in the UZ 15/1 penal colony in Minsk in a dormitory-style prison cell with approximately 80 prisoners. His wife was allowed to visit him and to bring him a 30kg food parcel only once every three months. In late 2001, Professor Bandazhevsky's conditions of confinement were improved somewhat when he reportedly was allowed to work each day in the prison library and to receive scientific publications. As a result, he was able to make corrections to the final draft of a scientific publication he had written in the weeks preceding his arrest. The publication, entitled Radioactive Caesium and Intrauterine Fetus Development, was published at the end of 2001.
On June 5, 2002, Professor Bandazhevsky was transferred from the large common cell where he had been held since his conviction to a cell with just three beds and a television. Furthermore, as he had requested, he was given a computer to enable him to continue his scientific work. Professor Bandazhevsky's wife, Galina Bandazhevskaya, said that her husband was very pleased by the improvement in his conditions of confinement, particularly that he would be allowed to focus on scientific research—something that he had requested repeatedly since he was jailed. She said that he wrote to tell her that he was "happy to finally be able to do productive work, within permitted limits." His family was relieved about the improvement in his conditions and hopeful that focusing on his scientific work would help him to endure his difficult plight.
In mid 2002, however—within just a short time after the above-mentioned improvements were made to his conditions of confinement—Professor Bandazhevsky's mental and physical health quite suddenly and severely deteriorated. His wife, who is a physician, said that her husband wrote fewer letters. (Until then he had written to her and their children daily to share his thoughts and his scientific manuscripts.) He stopped writing about his scientific work, and no longer showed any interest in his children. When she visited Professor Bandazhevsky in early September 2002, Dr. Bandazhevskaya said that she could barely recognize her husband. She said that his eyes “were empty.” He told her that he could not express his thoughts clearly, that his teeth were crumbling, and that he suffered from constant headaches. He asked her to divorce him and told her that he would never again do any scientific research, while at the same time telling her not to believe what he was saying to her. He also reportedly told his wife that he was not in a position to tell her everything he wanted to tell her about his situation and that he was afraid for their children.
On November 19, 2003, according to Amnesty International, Dr. Bandazhevsky wrote a note to his wife in which he said, “I am enormously grateful I am not forgotten. My state of health is not the best. I am exhausted by depression and have nightmares even while I am awake. The drugs are useless and have a number of side-effects, including allergies. I don’t have any strength left.”
In May 2004—following widespread appeals from the international community—the Belarusian courts ruled to “alleviate” Professor Bandazhevsky’s sentence. As a result of the court’s decision, he was transferred in mid 2004 to a corrective labor settlement, where he worked as a caretaker in a private agricultural cooperative and lived in the village of Peskovtsi in the Grodno district. There he was reportedly allowed to move freely within the confines of the settlement and was permitted visits from his family and from foreign diplomats without previous authorization. It is our understanding that Professor Bandazhevsky’s mental health improved as a result of the above-noted changes in his conditions of confinement.
In November 2004 Professor Bandazhevsky reportedly had surgery for the rupture of a tendon in his left shoulder, at which time he was diagnosed with lesions of his biotarsal joints that reportedly cause him intense pain when he walks. Reliable reports indicate that doctors at the gastroenterology department at Minsk clinical hospital diagnosed a precancerous condition in his stomach. While under the control of the prison authorities, Professor Bandazhevsky reportedly did not have access to the specialized treatment that he required for these conditions.
At the beginning of May 2005, Professor Bandazhevsky was informed, without explanation, that he could no longer continue working in the private agricultural cooperative. After several days of considerable stress for Professor Bandazhevsky, who feared he might be returned to prison, he was moved on May 13, 2005, to the village of Belitsa, 25 kilometers from Peskovtsi. There he began a new job on a large dairy farm as a mechanic. His job required him to be on his feet for at least eight hours a day and to walk considerable distances, which reportedly exacerbated his ligament condition considerably.
As a result of amnesties, Professor Bandazhevsky's eight-year prison sentence was reduced to seven years in July 2002 and, in early 2004, his sentence was reduced to six years. According to the Belarusian government, Articles 90 and 91 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus stipulate that Professor Bandazhevsky's sentence could be reduced when he had served half of the term of the prison sentence handed down by the court, and conditional early release (“parole”) reportedly was possible after two thirds of the sentence had been served, on January 6, 2005. But it was not until August 5, 2005, under an amnesty declared by President Lukashenka to celebrate the 60th anniversary of World War II, that Professor Bandazhevsky was released.
Professor Bandazhevsky's case garnered considerable support from the international community. A number of human rights groups, scientific organizations, the European Union, and the British, French, German, Greek, and Italian governments, among others, launched appeals in his behalf.
The CHR and member academies of the HR Network undertook numerous efforts to gain Professor Bandazhevsky's release from prison, including sending more than 100 letters of appeal to high-level Belarusian officials and submitting his case to an international human rights body. Shortly after Professor Bandazhevsky's release from prison, CHR and IOM member Michael Katz traveled to Belarus and visited Yuri and Galina Bandazhevsky in their home in Minsk to provide emotional and collegial support and to discuss efforts to help Professor Bandazhevsky to work again in his scientific field. (A pediatrician by profession, Michael Katz is Senior Advisor of Transdisciplinary Research and Interim Medical Director at the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.)