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Voices from the frontline of the protests

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“Yesterday [14 August] until midnight (and then from 1 am until 4 am) I was sorting through messages about the prison conditions. The mildest scenario was about being deprived of food and water for three days. Prison cells were filled with tear gas. Fifty people had to fit into a space of 10 sq. meters. Detainees were piled on top of each other and not allowed to move for hours. In the morning, they were rousted from their cells and forced to undress. Those who oversaw the detainees commanded them to squat down and began beating them. There was at least one case of injury to the rectum – someone was raped with an object. There were many more of these terrible stories: constant beatings, dowsing those detained with cold water, and other inhumane persecution,” Liavonchyk reported.

With journalists, Liavonchyk gathered interviews, statements and observations from those outside of prisons around Minsk. The following Voices from Belarus are just a few selected cases that have been confirmed by witnesses and documented by pictures.

Dmitriy Morgunov, an entrepreneur from Minsk:

“… the police cut holes in their trousers and shorts and threatened to put a grenade up into their intestines.”

“Two riot policemen decided that I was a terrorist. Maybe it was because I was wearing a biker jacket. They pushed me down into a basement. They harshly beat my legs and body with batons while loudly demanding that I tell them who paid me and how much to participate in the protest. They asked me, ‘Why have you, a terrorist, shut down the internet across the country? Why are you undermining peace and order in Belarus?’ They beat me so badly that I almost passed out. They pulled me into a gym and said that they would continue the beating later. I was rescued by a more or less sane riot policeman: he dragged me into a different corner where I could lie down, half-alive.”

The biggest shock Dmitriy experienced was the way one police officer behaved. Her colleagues called her “Kristina”. “She walked from man to man, intentionally pushing our legs apart to sadistically strike our groins with a baton. She beat men’s testicles. This woman punished one man’s genitalia while standing on his legs. He later told me that his whole groin was blue with bruises. Kristina was about 30 years old, with blond hair and of average height. She wore a police uniform and a protective mask.” 

As Dmitriy explained, most people he met in the gym of the Frunzenskiy police department remembered her cruelty. He was then packed into a small room with seven other men. During his confinement there, the group of eight received a single bottle of water. “Not giving us water is pure fascism,” he noted. 

Dmitriy was then moved to a prison located on Okrestin Street. There, everyone was forced to kneel, put their arms behind their backs, and put their heads on the floor. They had to remain in that position for almost five hours. There were many people who had been beaten; they simply could not hold themselves up and fell to the ground. An ambulance came to take away those with the most serious fractures and other injuries; however, a local doctor came and said: “there is no need to take them to the hospital; I will take care of everyone here.” 

Dmitriy says that there was no free space in the prison, and around one hundred people were packed into something resembling a hut that was outside the main building. There was just a ceiling and a cold concrete floor. Many people were shirtless, some had torn clothes, and many were barefoot. Everyone was cold at night. We had to sleep in shifts. There were roughly 30 places for people to sit down while the other 80 had to stand. 

Dmitriy noticed one interesting detail. At least a quarter of those with whom he was detained in the hut (about 25 people) had their trousers cut from behind. He did not understand why they had holes in the area of the buttocks. He was told that the police had cut their trousers and shorts there and threatened to put a grenade up into their intestines. 

Dmitriy says that among those with whom he spoke, he did not encounter anyone who had built barricades in the streets. Nor had anyone fought with the riot police – these were ordinary people. One was caught near a department store; another while hiking in a park. Others had been dragged from their cars. 

Vadim, arrested for simply being outside:

“You just have to sit and wait. Because the prison is overcrowded, you cannot sleep nor even lie down. If you start asking questions, they start beating you.”

Vadim was arrested on the street while hanging out with friends. “Can you please block me,” he says to people as we talk to him near the walls of the prison. He wants them to stand behind us so no one can see that he is being interviewed. Throughout the 17-minute conversation, he was frequently scared that somebody was watching him. 

“When we arrived at the prison, the car doors opened, and riot policemen were standing in a line. As you made your way toward the main building, they beat you up from the left and from the right. It is some sort of entertainment that they enjoy. He often replaces the word ‘we’ with ‘you,’ probably trying to distance himself from what happened to him. The policemen scream, ‘Move the f*ck faster”. The atmosphere was like a drunk man beating his loved ones in a flat. We were ordered to stand by a wall and be on our knees for two or three hours. Why did we need to be like that for so long? As I understand, most spaces were occupied by other prisoners. Then we were moved to a different room, with four walls and a cage. This happened at 3 am.” 

As Vadim recalls, if you had any requests, the police met them with violence and aggressive treatment. “If you started asking questions, they started beating you,” he says. He stayed silent most of the time and remained untouched. But the requests of the others were very humane. 

“For the first 48 hours, we were not given any food; people were screaming, ‘I want to eat’. After spending two days in the cell, some got angry. They assertively knocked on the cell door and asked for food. We heard how they were beaten in response. In my cell, everyone remained silent. Most of those who sat with me were adults, up to 50 years old, and did not suffer so much.” 

Prison life, Vadim continues, can be described in a few words, “You just have to sit and wait. Because the prison is overcrowded, you cannot sleep nor even lie down.”

“At one point, we had a newcomer” (Vadim thought this was someone who had just arrived); his jeans were covered in blood, which he said was his friend’s. The second person who came was coughing blood. 

In our interview, a reporter asked, “Have you been tried yet?”

The response was, “I was not really even officially there. Nothing like a court appearance took place. I was arrested, detained, and imprisoned.” 

Someone from the crowd asked if Vadim needed help in getting home, to which he replied that he still wanted to spend some time near the prison with others. 

Aliaksei, a 22 year old detainee:

“I have a traumatic brain injury – they hit my head pretty hard.”

22 year old Aliaksei told us how he and his friends were picked up on their way home. Although they had seen police cars, they decided that their walk wouldn’t be problematic because they hadn’t violated any laws. However, they were stopped and searched. 

After that, three of them were dragged into a car and beaten. “They hit us with their hands, kicked us, and used batons, while cursing all the time. They did not explain why. What they were saying was undecipherable. They told us that we were fascists, we had sold out our motherland, we were mercenaries, we were controlled from Poland, we were traitors, we should be lined up against a wall and shot. Afterwards they took us to the central police department and continued beating us. I am not sure whether they were the same policemen who’d caught us: they all wore masks and did not use names.”  

He said that those detained were forced to lie face down on the ground in a large room; their hands were tied behind their backs, and they were beaten again. The police were screaming something like, “Where are your weapons; you were going to kill us, weren’t you!” “Then they laid us down in a corridor and started kicking us. There were many there, around 20 for sure. They then went to write up a report. I started feeling bad; my heart hurt and my blood pressure increased. An ambulance was called, and I got sent to the hospital. Now I have a doctor’s report that says I have a traumatic brain injury – they hit my head pretty hard. Nobody returned my stuff; they took my money, my apartment keys. I asked them to return them to me, and they said they’d found nothing.

The policemen also forced him to unlock his phone, to “log on and write something from my address.” 

A 40 year old resident of Homel

“They then chained me to a window with handcuffs.

A 40 year old resident of Homel was going home on his bike. He got caught 100 meters from his house. “They arrested me near McDonalds. They started beating me right away and used abusive language. They asked where I put the 50 rubles I’d been paid for the protests. They sprayed pepper spray into my eyes and hit my head against a doorway.” 

“They transported me to the police department. There, a group of very aggressive policemen took me to the gym and laid me down on the floor. They continued beating me and being disrespectful. They then chained me to a window with handcuffs – this happened in the gym. There were around 20 people there just like me.” 

“The policemen were watching what was happening around the country and laughing. It seemed to me that they became even more aggressive after watching the videos. When I tried to get up, they knocked me down. I started to lose consciousness. An ambulance took me to the hospital. I had a traumatic brain injury and other injuries.”

Uladzimer Charauha, a resident of Hrodna 

“Momma, I don’t want to die,” said the five year old girl as her mother was taking her out of the car.

The Hrodna residents Uladzimer Charauha, his wife Ira, and five year old daughter were driving home in the city. Near Dziekabrystau Square, the traffic started to slow down. Some cars were honking their horns. Charauha did not use his horn, nor did his car have any symbols on it. But suddenly five men in black uniforms jumped out of a taxi in front of them and started hitting his car with their batons. 

Scared for his family’s safety, he moved into the next lane. When his car was alongside the taxi, somebody hit the windshield with a baton, and shattered oy. At the same time, a military vehicle banged into his car. Glass rained down on the passengers. Uladzimer exited the car and was hit on the head with a baton. He started bleeding profusely. 

He tried to tell them that there was a child in the car. “I couldn’t call the ambulance myself because I was bleeding badly, and my phone wasn’t working,” he recalls. He was detained and interrogated for the entire night, and then released. One man nearby took his child to the hospital. The girl’s head had been injured; now her face is heavily bandaged. The doctors diagnosed an internal head injury. Her mother remembers the child saying “Momma, I don’t want to die,” as she took her out of the car. Now she is scared of going outside.

Summary of the Political Background

In May 2020, the campaign for the next presidential election began in Belarus. The election was scheduled for August 9, 2020. From the start, it was clear that the authorities were preparing large-scale vote rigging. Only government representatives were allowed to serve on regional election committees; the participation of all independent representatives was blocked.

The situation only deteriorated. The authorities arrested the two most popular candidates – banker Viktar Babaryka [Victor Babariko] and blogger Siarhiei Cichanouski [Sergei Tikhanovsky]. They also pressured a third candidate – Amb. Valer Capkala [Valeriy Tsepkalo], former head of the High Technologies Park – with the advent of possible charges. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, the Organisation Reporters sans frontières (RSF) reported election-related repression after the authorities arrested a number of journalists for reporting on demonstrations and rallies held by opposition candidates. According to RSF, foreign media were also obstructed in order to limit independent reporting.

When the candidates began collecting signatures required under Belarus’s election law, their campaign teams were subjected to numerous harassment and arrests across the country. Other politicians and civic activists were also arrested. All of them, as well as the incarcerated candidates, are recognized as political prisoners by domestic human rights organizations and Amnesty International. A total of more than 1,000 persons were preventively arrested prior to the election.

After the candidates had collected and submitted the signatures, the Central Election Committee (CEC) rejected outright several hundred thousand of them and did not register the most popular opposition candidates. Nevertheless, the CEC allowed Sviatlana Cichanouskaia [Svetlana Tikhanovskaya], the wife of political prisoner Siarhiei Cichanouski [Sergei Tikhanovsky], to be registered on the assumption that she posed no threat to President Lukashenko. 

Although President Lukashenko managed to reduce significantly the pool of those running against him, Belarusian society united around Cichanouskaia. The campaign of this woman, a stay-at-home mom, was joined and assisted by the election teams of the two other most popular by non-registered candidates. This merger allowed the many of the supporters of change to unite their forces and resources behind Cichanouskaia. As a consequence, her rallies grew larger day by day, beginning with several hundred participants in the first days and culminating with 65,000 supporters during one of her final events in Minsk.

In the meantime, the CEC issued a new regulation restricting the number of observers allowed to be present inside voting stations to three people. Other independent observers could only stand outside of a voting station and were banned from entering the building and monitoring the voting process. The government also made independent polls illegal.

During the early voting period, independent observers noticed a significant difference in the number of those who had really voted and the number of those who were said to have voted by officials. According to the CEC, about 42% of the electorate voted early, which left much room for falsification.

As the German TV Channel Tagesschau reported, there were signs of massive manipulation during the voting process. These included forcing employees in state institutions and companies to vote early, false statements in electoral registers, vote buying, and “carousel voting” – when groups are taken in buses to several polling stations to cast votes more than once.

On election day, August 9th, the CEC limited the number of people who could be inside voting stations, which created long lines. Inside the stations, most voting booths had no curtains. Thus, voters were deprived of their right to vote privately. After the voting process was completed, not all commissions announced the election results and some left the voting stations in buses guarded by special forces and police, while people who were still awaiting for the results stood outside. 

In the evening, the CEC announced the preliminary results: the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko led with 80% of the vote, while Sviatlana Cichanouskaia [Svetlana Tikhanovskaya] only received 9%. These alleged results angered many voters, who felt they didn’t reflect the real choice of the electorate. The Belarusian independent newspaper Nasha Niva published vote count lists that greatly deviated from the official results. They showed Tikhanovskaya far ahead of President Lukashenko. “Honest People”, an independent initiative, announced that Tikhanovskaya had won around 85% of votes in stations where non-state observers had been present and monitoring. 

The fraudulent actions of the government and the CEC sparked large-scale protests in cities and towns across  Belarus. On the evening of the election, the government shut down the country’s Internet; the blocking continued to varying degrees for the next three days, making it difficult for those protesting to communicate and coordinate. From the very first hours of the demonstrations, police resorted to brute force and harshly cracked down on protesters. Riot police and the military were called in, and they used flashbang grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas indiscriminately against crowds.

Many peaceful protesters were violently beaten and received serious injuries. Such actions inspired multitudes of other citizens to take up non-violent resistance actions. Employing brute force and verbal abuse, riot police and SWAT forces attacked ordinary bystanders and pedestrians who had not engaged in any way with the protesters. Those who tried to escape into the yards of apartment complexes were chased down by the police. The police attempted to break into entry ways and dwellings in pursuit of them. In the days that followed, the security forces attacked and smashed cars that showed support for the protestors by honking their horns. 

Over the last few days, more than 6,000 people have been detained. A number of journalists, despite being accredited and clearly identified, were beaten and apprehended in the streets. After being released from prison, many testified about being tortured while in custody. The abuse began when the arrested were put into paddy wagons. There, the police beat men and women with their fists, kicked them, and used batons. Their heads were thrown against walls. Many were handcuffed, forced to lie down, and subjected to brutal violence. Some policemen aimed specifically at the prisoners’ heads and groins. 

As a result of these violent actions, two people have officially been declared dead. At this time, the whereabouts of a considerable number of protesters remain unknown. It is possible that the number of people who have been tortured and killed could be significantly larger. Observers noted an enormous number of ambulances parked near prisons.  As of today, more than 500 people who suffered torture in prisons, gunshot and fragmentation grenade wounds, and beatings by police remain in hospitals. 

According to data compiled by human rights defenders, more than 1,300 protesters have been charged with alleged crimes and saddled with large fines.

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