'How Can This Be Our Country?': Claims Of Torture Abound As Belarusian Jails Swell
By Timofei Rozhansky, Lyubov Chizhova, Michael Scollon August 13, 2020
In the dead of night, you can hear the muffled screams outside Minsk's Akrestina prison.
Often described as a "house of torture," the facility is just one of many where beatings and abuse of protesters demonstrating against authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's claim of victory in a disputed August 9 election are alleged to be taking place.
While riot police have shown little reluctance to mete out brutal forms of justice on the streets, many who have spoken of suffering violence at the hands of police say an even worse fate awaited them once they were in custody.
The few images that have emerged from the grounds of police facilities are harrowing.
One video posted on social media appeared to show bodies lying motionless in a police courtyard, leading to speculation that they were dead.
Another, broadcast by state television, showed young demonstrators, obviously under duress and some bruised and beaten, lined up against a wall vowing never to dabble in making "revolutions" again.
Nikita Telizhenko, a Russian journalist for the media outlet Znak who was caught up in the violence against demonstrators, described his experience in custody to Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Telizhenko, who was eventually released from custody after the Russian Embassy in Minsk intervened on his behalf, said from the safety of Smolensk that he was detained after police saw him using his mobile phone to inform his editors of developments in downtown Minsk on August 10, the second night of mass protests.
He said officers who approached him suspected that he was using the popular social-messaging app Telegram to help coordinate the demonstrations. Despite insisting that he did not have the app installed and showing officers the messages he sent to his editor, he was detained and taken to a central police station.
There, he said, force was used against detainees without exception.
"Any question that was unsuitable to the Belarusian police officers immediately resulted in beatings," he said. "People were screaming, people were soiling themselves from the pain."
Telizhenko, who spent 16 hours at the station, said the violence against detainees was carried out with impunity, and in the presence of other police.
"They relish it. They make people pray when they start beating them," he said. "They beat me on the head, beat me on the legs. One man who was being led in front of me was smashed against the door frame as a joke."
Telizhenko said detainees were forced to lie face down on the ground and suffered consequences if they tried to sneak a peek at what was going on. Among the around 150 detainees he saw, there were "people with injured spines, broken arms and legs, and concussions, and no one received treatment."
Minsk resident Syarhey Melyanets told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he and his two brothers were detained after they drove to the center of the capital to pray for a peaceful resolution to the violence that at that point had already resulted in thousands of detentions and reported injuries.
He said he was sitting in his car, just sending messages on his phone and not displaying any protest symbols, when they saw a group of 30 to 40 police officers running.
"They pounced on one of my brothers, knocked him down, and began to beat him," Melyanets said. "Then they jerked me out of the car."
He said his phone was taken from him and he was hit with truncheons on the head, stomach, and back. He was dragged to a waiting van and ordered to lie stacked atop other detainees in the van until a larger police van arrived to take them to a police station.
While they waited, Melyanets said, the riot police mocked them and threatened them, with one telling them that if it were up to him, he "would burn you all."
Once in the police van, an officer began to tase him in the back and near his heart.
"I keep telling him that I can't say anything other than what I'm saying, because it's true," Melyanets said. "He swore again and again and hit me with a taser several times. In short, he tortured me all the way."
RFE/RL's Belarus Service spoke with people lined up outside Minsk police stations and detention facilities in search of information about missing loved ones.
Even beyond the fence at one facility, people gathered could hear the screams of detainees inside. The crowd called for trucks -- presumably ferrying detainees away to another location -- to stop. Their pleas for information were met with shrugs and smiles from the police.
"How can this be in our country?" asked one woman, who did not provide her name. "How can this be in peacetime, that people are snatched away?"
Lukashenka, the longtime president who election officials claim won more than 80 percent of the vote in an election many Belarusians believe was rigged, publicly wrote off the protesters as malingerers who simply need to "find a job."
"They have nothing to do," he said on national television on August 12. "Therefore, they are wandering the streets and protesting."
Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service, RFE/RL's Russian Service, and Current Time
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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