'Guards Beat a Detainee. He Cried and Cried, Then Stopped. Doctors Came and Covered His Head'

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.

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-guards-beat-a-detainee-he-cried-then-stopped-doctors-came-and-covered-his-head-1.9203112

‘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.

An arrest in Minsk, Photo: AFP

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.”

Valery Samalazou and his doughters

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.”

Viachaslau Krasulin, Photo: Alfred Mikus

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.”

Aliaksei Novik

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.”

. Mass demonstration in Minsk, photo: AFP

Exiled Belarusian regime opponents' leader: The president is weak, women can defend our country

In an interview with Haaretz from a hiding place in Lithuania, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya calls on Russia and other countries not to intervene in the political crisis in Belarus, and stresses that she does not intend to run for the presidency in any future election

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-exiled-belarus-opposition-leader-to-haaretz-our-female-revolution-is-significant-1.9137156

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been in hiding in Lithuania since August 10, under guard. While she has been living in forced exile, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko – who is considered by many to be “the last dictator in Europe,” having served as his country’s leader since 1994 – has been facing huge nationwide demonstrations daily.

“I feel great pride [at] my people who at last woke up,” Tsikhanouskaya told Haaretz in an interview – the first time Lukashenko’s greatest rival, who ran in the recent presidential election against him, has been interviewed in the Israeli media.

Tsikhanouskaya during the interview: "I’m not the leader of the opposition, I’m the leader of the majority"

“They have aims, they know what they’re fighting for. They’re fighting for new elections where they’ll be able to choose a new president for our country,” she said.

Until last summer, Tsikhanouskaya, 37, was an English teacher and translator. She had no intention of being active in politics and only decided to run in this year’s presidential election after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky – an entrepreneur who launched a YouTube channel last year in which he criticized the government – was not allowed to stand. He has been labeled an opponent of the regime and was arrested at a demonstration in May. He was later charged with disorderly conduct and attacking a police officer, and has been imprisoned ever since.

In response, Tsikhanouskaya became the opposition candidate in the August 9 election. Her husband supported her until he was jailed, and she continued to campaign despite threats, harassment and the arrest of some of her supporters and staff. 

She reportedly received widespread support from the public on Election Day, as well as from major opposition figures. Standing alongside her were Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo – another opposition candidate who was barred from running – and Maria Kalesnikava, the campaign manager of a third candidate, Viktor Babaryka, who was also barred from running and jailed. 

Tsikhanouskaya said she was worried about the “awful violence” being used by the authorities in Minsk against Belarusians. She views the public protest that broke out in her country as the tip of a process that has existed for years.

“Of course it didn’t happen in just a moment,” she said. “There were preconditions. COVID played a huge role: Our society understood that we can help each other, that we’re a nation and our authorities don’t care for us in difficult times. So, when Sergei Tikhanovsky was going around the country showing the truth and saying the truth, they started to prosecute him. But he encouraged other people to understand they have the right to say the truth and talk about it".

“Step by step, people started to wake up,” she continued. “There was a great fear, but every day – the same as I did – people had to overcome the fear and do something and say what they want. During this election campaign they saw how united they are. Many people came to our rallies,” she said, “and they looked into each other’s eyes and understood that they want to live in a different country. They want to be respected by the authorities, unlike the last 26 years. We want a different life for our children.”

According to the official result, Lukashenko won 80 percent of the votes while Tsikhanouskaya received only 10 percent. However, opposition activists claimed there had been voter fraud, while the European Union condemned the government in Minsk for holding an election that was “neither free nor fair.” It also criticized the violent repression of the protests that erupted immediately after the election, and is advancing sanctions against senior Belarusian leaders. 

Tsikhanouskaya filed a complaint with the Central Election Committee the day after the vote, and as a result was detained by the authorities for several hours. Later that same day, security forces accompanied her to the Lithuanian border (to the west of Belarus). In Lithuania, she joined her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, who were evacuated from Belarus before the election due to threats against the family.

After arriving in Lithuania, the official media in Belarus released a video in which Tsikhanoskaya can be seen reading an announcement calling on protesters not to go out into the streets and to respect the election result – in a style reminiscent of those films where hostages read the words of their captors. Later that day, she released her own video on social media in which she stated that she was forced to leave Belarus out of fears for her children’s safety.

A few days later, Tsikhanouskaya declared in another video that she had won the election and was forming a public council to arrange the transfer of power from Lukashenko to her – and to hold new and free elections. In interviews, Tsikhanouskaya emphasized that she would serve as an interim president and didn’t intend to run in any new election.

Will the fact that the president holds all the power in Belarus, including the military and police force, not cause the protest to dissipate without replacing the government – especially in light of the fact that the opposition leader is not even in the country? Do you have the power to even start a dialogue with Lukashenko?

“First of all, I’m not the leader of the opposition, I’m the leader of the majority. Second, you say that Lukashenko has all the power, and you mentioned police, but he doesn’t have the power on his people. This matters. He has power on 1 percent of the people. He has no power at all in the eyes of the Belarusians. They will never trust him anymore, they will not be able to live in their country under his leadership. So, how can you say that he has power? Absolutely not!"

In that case, what practical steps are you taking in order to bring a regime change?

“First of all, all the political prisoners must be released. That will be the sign that our authorities are ready for a dialogue. This dialogue has to happen as soon as possible, because of the political crises and the economic crises. When the political prisoners will be released we’ll start this dialogue – which will lead to new, fair and transparent elections, and people will have the right to elect a new president for themselves,” she said. 

“Thanks to different initiatives, we have results from poll stations where the results were falsified. At the moment, we have over 150 real results which are radically different than those which were published.” Says Tsikhanoskaya and adds that

 international observers were not allowed to come and supervise the election. Furthermore, the results she obtained were the result of acts of bravery from people who worked in the polling places and were charged by the authorities because they published the truth. She added that she won over 50 percent of the vote – a level that does not require a second round of voting according to Belarusian law.

Are you, like many others, concerned about possible Russian intervention in the situation in Belarus? Have you been in touch with the Kremlin or have they tried to contact you?

“What’s going on in Belarus is absolutely our internal affair. It’s not about geopolitics, it’s a political crisis where our people are standing up against one person. There’s no need and there’s no reason for the Russians to interfere in this political crisis. There is awareness to this [Russian intervention], but I can’t say that I’m afraid of this. I always ask all the countries, including Russia, to respect our sovereignty. We have to deal with this conflict ourselves.”

The principle of Belarusian sovereignty is equally valid with regards to other nations too, Tsikhanouskaya says. Nonetheless, she’s happy to note that many countries recognize her claims that election results in Belarus were falsified and that they don’t recognize Lukashenko’s victory.

“They show their support for the Belarusian people who are standing up for their rights and for defending our elections. They are absolutely for our people, they are supporting us in this fight,” she said. “We appreciate what they say and we appreciate that they are vocal, and we are very grateful for whatever they do to support our people. 

“But we also call to respect the sovereignty of our country. We underline that what’s going on is our internal affair and other countries shouldn’t interfere in the situation. When other leaders ask what they can do for us, I say that if one day we will need international mediation in starting negotiations with our authorities, then all the countries which care about our situation are invited.”

Women’s revolution

International criticism, nonrecognition of the election result and calls for Lukashenko to avoid violence have also come from the United Nations, Belarus’ neighbors and even from the Vatican. A source close to Tsikhanoskaya said she has already spoken with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and the Leaders of Sweden, Finland and Estonia. But her exile in Lithuania has forced her to devote time not only to foreign officials but also to her partners in the protest.

What’s the nature of your relationship with the protest leadership and the other leaders, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kalesnikava? Do you speak? Are there any disagreements or conflicts between you?

“Of course we’re in touch. We’re working together. But we understand that Maria Kalesnikava is in Minsk, and of course she has much more pressure on herself than I have or Veronika Tsepkalo, who is in Poland I suppose. But each one of us does her best to reach the aim we have. So I’m here, meeting with leaders of different countries who show support to our people and our situation. Veronika also, I’m sure, is doing her best for the same purpose, and Maria, who’s in front at this moment in Minsk. I’m really proud that she’s there and I’m proud that we’re still together, that we have one aim and we’re moving toward it together.”

The fact that the leadership of the opposition is made up of women is no coincidence, and Tsikhanoskaya attributed great importance to it. “The phenomena of a [female] revolution is very significant in our demonstrations. We understood that we can, we are important and we can defend our country not in the kitchen but in front of men and beside men. So we felt ourselves as a united nation where people help other people, take care of other people – and this is our unity.” 

But in spite of what she may say, it’s clear that living in exile is not easy for Tsikhanouskaya.

In a video released after she arrived in Lithuania, she said that the decision to leave was very difficult and one she made on her own, without consulting with political figures – or even her husband in prison. In subsequent interviews, as well as now, she has refused to say exactly what happened during the hours when she was held by the authorities in Minsk before crossing the border into Lithuania. 

“It’s not time [to tell]. Sorry,” she said.

What about your future plans? Do you intend to be president of Belarus?

“No, my opinion on this hasn’t changed. I’m not planning to be involved in the future elections.”

Are you in touch with your husband? When did you last talk to him?

“I think I spoke to him about three and a half months ago, because in our country you can’t phone prisoners. But we communicate via a lawyer who visits him about twice a week. The lawyer tells him about what’s going on in Belarus, and he’s very proud of the Belarusian people. He supports me and he’s really grateful to the Belarusian people that everything he did wasn’t in vain. Of course I’m worried about him, because he’s held like a hostage.”

Can you tell us a little about your situation in Lithuania, the conditions in which you live, the situation of the children and your plans to return to Belarus?

“What matters is that I feel safe here. I’m surrounded with different, wonderful people – Lithuanians and Belarusians – who are now members of my team, and we’re doing our best to achieve our aims in Belarus. We’re all working for the same purpose, which hasn’t changed: new elections in Belarus.

“My children are fine, thank God. They want to go back, they miss their Daddy. I also want to go back to Belarus, and I will as soon as I feel safe there.”

She continues: “We have a wonderful country with peaceful, friendly and hardworking people who have lived under this regime for 26 years. According to the Constitution we have a lot of rights, but in reality we have no rights at all. People are imprisoned just for having an intention to tell the truth; they’re imprisoned for going out and showing their disagreement with the regime. 

“It’s not safe to live there, because people are disappearing. It’s not safe to go out and raise your voice, because you’ll be beaten and imprisoned. There’s no justice – our people have had enough. They woke up and want to live in a democratic country where people are safe and free. Now it’s high time for our people to struggle for their rights, and they’re ready to build a country for life.”