Large numbers of people went into the streets of Belarus in August after the authorities in Minsk declared that President Alexander Lukashenko had been reelected with 80 percent of the votes. The opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was said to have received 10 percent. Since then, statements testifying to fraud in the voting booths have been published, and the European Union condemned the Minsk government for “elections that were not free or fair.” Undeterred, however, Lukashenko had himself inaugurated for a sixth term on September 23, even as protests continued around the country. The demonstrations in Belarus against Lukashensko, who has been in power for 26 years, have been met with a heavy hand by the security forces. Thousands of demonstrators who have been arrested since the protests began have testified about brutal violence, torture and the crass violation of their rights. Three of them told Haaretz about what they endured in incarceration.
‘I wanted to protest the theft of my vote’
Valery Samalazou, 32, a software engineer from Minsk, is married and the father of three daughters. In June, he received a visa to work in the U.K. He returned in August to visit his daughters and wife and his friends, and to vote. He says he never expressed his political opinions publicly in the past, never broke the law and was never arrested. “I never even received a driving ticket,” he relates.
On August 8, the day before the election, he was on a camping trip with his family, cut off from the unfolding events in the country. On his return to Minsk, he discovered that the city was full of soldiers and that internet access was blocked. “We decided to take the girls out of town, to my wife’s mother,” he says, speaking to Haaretz by phone using secure channels, “in order to save them from the uncertainty and possible dangers.” He and his wife then returned to the capital, shortly before the polling stations closed, in order to vote. To find out the results, he bypassed the government's internet shutdown by connecting via a computer of the company he works for – an Israeli company based in the U.K.
Initial exit polls, Samalazou discovered, showed an apparent Lukashenko victory. “That was impossible, we thought. When I checked again in the morning, I also found messages from people abroad who sent video clips via social media of arrests and violence. I didn’t know anything and I decided to look into it. By the evening, there was no internet at all. After I met colleagues who confirmed that there had been war-like scenes in Minsk, I decided to go to the city center in order to speak my mind and protest the theft of my vote.”
He continues, “As I passed the central railway station, I saw people in black masks hiding around the corner. They blocked my path, questioned me and asked to see some identification. Then they grabbed me, hit me in the head and dragged me to a police vehicle which already had around five detainees inside.” Afterward, he was pulled out of the vehicle and dragged to a nearby building, where his shoes were removed and he was beaten again and questioned. His phone was examined, and the security forces wanted to know why he had money, pictures and bank cards from Britain.
“They treated me like I was a spy,” Samalazou continues. “When the person in charge arrived – in civilian clothes and not wearing a mask – he ordered me to be taken to the police station. He told me that I would be jailed for such a long time that my daughters would be married by the time I got out, and he also threatened to rape me with a club. A police vehicle took me to the station and collected more detainees along the way.” At the police station, the prisoners were forced out of the vehicle and made to lie on the ground. Police officers occasionally came by and hit them randomly, focusing on the younger detainees. “Some of them were hit so hard that they passed out,” he recalls. “We weren’t allowed to look, but we heard the truncheons strike their bodies. I discovered that a truncheon that strikes someone who’s unconscious makes a different sound. There was a girl there who pleaded with them to stop hitting those who had fainted, and they then beat her on the legs. When someone asked to see a doctor, the guard shouted ‘Doctor!’ and two policemen in masks arrived and beat the person viciously.”
Samalazou was interrogated in the station: “They tried to prove I was a spy. I was asked about my work and my political views. By searching my phone, they discovered that I had voted for Tsikhanouskaya [by reveiling a picture of the ballot which was taken for a system whereby activists submitted such pictures in order to compare them to the official count]. They beat me for that. Finally I was taken back to the parking area. In the middle of the night they brought detainees from the demonstrations, who had undergone worse beatings. Their faces were seveirly wounded and covered with blood.” He was left lying, bound, on the ground in the parking area for some 18 hours. “I understood that we were not under arrest but had been kidnapped and that they could do with us as they pleased.”
In the morning, after the group spent the night in the cold, a military vehicle transported Samalazou and the others to a detention facility. “We were made to lie on the floor of the vehicle in three layers. Whoever got on after us had to step on us,” he relates. He was handcuffed, and started to feel that the blood wasn’t reaching the palms of his hands. When he asked for his hands to be freed, they were bound behind his back instead. Leaving the vehicle, his arms were twisted violently and he lost consciousness.
At the detention facility, Samalazou was left for seven hours in an inner courtyard. The handcuffs were removed, but by then his hands had turned blue and purple and he had no feeling in them. Finally he and 30 more detainees were incarcerated in a cell intended for 10. There he was finally given food, after two days in which he hadn’t eaten. “There were no beatings in that prison, but the conditions were awful,” he says. After three and a half days, Samalazou was released with no explanation. He signed a declaration stating that he would not take part in demonstrations and was hospitalized for two weeks with head injuries. Since then he’s returned to his job in London and hopes that his wife and daughters, who don’t yet have visas for Britain, will be able to join him soon. He still has no feeling in his fingers.
Four days in a cell with 40 people
Viachaslau Krasulin, 32 and single, was forced to leave Belarus after the demonstrations in August. A lecturer on culture and art at a university in Minsk, and a musician, he fled to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, on September 3, after a criminal case was opened against him in Belarus, which could land him in prison for some years. He had participated with friends in a demonstration at a shopping center in Minsk on August 10.
“There were maybe a hundred people there, and things were calm,” he recalls. “There were no weapons. Some of the demonstrators erected roadblocks, a few young ones collected stones. After a time, police vehicles arrived, and the forces began throwing stun grenades. People ran and the police started to dismantle the roadblocks. My friends fled, but I thought that if I didn’t run, they wouldn’t take me in. That was a mistake.”
As he was trying to leave the scene, Krasulin continues, “I saw that one of the police officers had shot an elderly man in the stomach. The man wasn’t moving. I was in shock. I saw a young man running toward the man who had been shot to try and help him, and I wanted to join him, but then four men in green uniforms jumped me. They started to hit me and took me to a police vehicle. Two more of them attacked me there – one of them cut off my long hair with a knife. They made me lie on the floor, shouted at me that I was gay and handcuffed me. Then the man who had helped the person who was shot was forced into the vehicle. He was a doctor.”
More detainees were brought to the already crowded vehicle – two people had to lie on top of him, Krasulin relates. After a drive of about half an hour, they arrived at the Okrestina detention center. “We were beaten as we got out of the vehicle. They made us run to the wall of the courtyard and get on our knees, and left us like that for two hours.” They were then forced to lie on the ground for a few hours. “We were left there until 8 in the morning and then interrogated separately and taken to a cell. It was a cell for six people but they packed 30 detainees in and ordered us to strip down to our underwear. We weren’t beaten, but we were forbidden to approach the windows, so that people standing outside would not be able to see or hear us.”
Eventually, he says, about 40 people were crammed into the cell, making it impossible to sit, let alone lie down. “I spent four days there, and for the first three days I received only a little bread and cereal for breakfast,” Krasulin continues. “We drank water, but there was no more food. On the third day, there were trials. There were no lawyers and we weren’t allowed to make calls. Each trial lasted six minutes. The judge asked what I had done, who had beaten me and why. I replied that I had no idea why I was beaten. I was sentenced to 11 days in prison. I was glad not to have received more; others were given far worse punishments.”
On the following day, Krasulin and his fellow detainees also were fed supper. After being interrogated again, he was transferred to a different, less crowded cell. Subsequently a police officer arrived to let him out. “I was given back my clothes, which were filthy, but not my bag, which held my passport, papers and credit cards,” he relates. “My telephone also remained with the police, because it was used as evidence in someone else’s trial. Before being released, I was made to sign a document stating that I would not take part in more demonstrations. I was taken in a police vehicle with six other people to a cemetery in the city, where we were released.”
Krasulin received medical treatment and decided to file a complaint against the police officers who had beaten him. In the wake of the complaint, he was informed that a file had been opened against him, after which he left the country at the advice of his lawyer.
‘He was beaten, then doctors covered his head’
Aliaksei Novik, 37, from Minsk, is the owner of a technology company. On Election Day, he was an independent poll observer for an opposition party. “Because of the coronavirus, we were not allowed to be inside the polling station during the day,” he relates. “But at the end of the day we waited outside for the protocol [i.e., the results of the voting at the station] to be published. It was made available two hours after the polling stations closed, and it turned out that Lukashenko had won big. That was a joke. It was clear that the results were falsified.”
Novik wanted to make his way home, but discovered that public transportation had been halted and also that internet access was being blocked: “I tried to walk to the center and find a taxi, but when I got close to one of the metro stations, I saw large forces who looked to be from the army. I lay on the grass in a courtyard, I heard very loud screaming and also shots, and I waited for it all to end.” Afterward, he relates, “I got up and ran in the opposite direction. I ran into a police patrol. I felt safe and asked them how I could get home. They pointed to a yellow bus nearby and one of them said, ‘That’s your ride home.’ Maybe he was joking. Then a few of them grabbed me. The five days that followed will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
He, too, like Krasulin, was taken to Okrestina. Sentenced to a 15-day prison term, apparently for participating in the protests, he was moved to a different detention facility in Zhodino, northeast of Minsk. His story is also rife with brutal violence against detainees, the hacking of his phone, coerced false confessions that were videoed, threats of rape on the part of the guards and appalling hunger and overcrowding in the detention cell. The age of the detainees ranged from 16 to 74, he says, based on their conversations. “There were people with broken ribs. One night in Okrestina, through the window, we saw guards beating a man in the yard. He cried and cried, then stopped. When things were quiet, I saw a few doctors arrive and cover his head. I don’t know for certain that he was dead, but I think a few people died there.”
Snipers were posted on the watchtowers of the facility, Novik relates, and there were dogs in the yard. From the adjacent cell he heard women’s voices. He refers to the police as “Gestapo,” and he says that one police officer called him “Jew” (he isn't Jewish). After he was released, apparently following the intervention of the European Union and human rights organizations, he filed a complaint against the police and has been conducting a legal battle against them since. He has remained in Minsk. He says he is wounded mentally and physically and can’t sleep at night.
“The Belarusian people is starting anew,” Novik says. “We live in the center of Europe. I see how people live in Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, and I ask: Why do I not have human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly? I do not want a union with Russia, we are not its ‘little brother.’ We are a free people in Europe, and this is our war of independence.”