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Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of towns and cities across Belarus this week in protest of last Sunday’s presidential election. The announced results — a landslide victory for the country’s longtime President Alexander Lukashenko — are widely seen as fraudulent. The government’s response to the peaceful demonstrations has been savage violence: Thousands of people have been indiscriminately beaten, shot with rubber bullets, arrested, and held for days in unknown detention centers.
Journalists have been among the arrested. This account by Russian reporter Nikita Telizhenko, originally published in Russian on the Ekaterinburg-based outlet Znak, is one of the first detailed glimpses into the horrific abuses taking place in Lukashenko’s detention centers.
I was arrested on August 10, when all of Minsk was preparing for a second night of protest against the presidential election results. A demonstration was planned on Nemiga Street. Military vehicles and trucks had already pulled up. Soldiers, OMON A special police unit frequently used for riot control. officers, and police were waiting in underground passages and among the buildings. I was just walking around and watching the preparations. I saw water cannons and wrote to my editors. Then, literally a minute later, police officers came up to me, wearing their usual uniforms. They asked me to show them what was in my bag, which they thought suspicious. I showed them that I had a jacket in there, and they let me go.
Soon, at the bus station by the Palace of Sports, I saw that people getting out of a city bus were being grabbed by OMON officers and put into a police van. I took a few photos of this on my phone and started writing to my editors about the first arrests at the demonstration. Then I went toward the Hero City Obelisk, where a real battle had broken out the day before between protesters and security forces. I wanted to see how this place looked afterwards. But when I was halfway there, a minivan pulled up to me. And this time, it was fully equipped OMON police who jumped out. They ran up to me and asked what I was doing. As I came to understand later, they were looking for the organizers of the protest. They knew that protesters were exchanging information on Telegram about the movement of security forces and reporting ambushes. They apparently decided that I was one of them. I said: “I don’t even have Telegram on my phone, I use SMS messages. I’m a journalist and I’m writing to my editors.” They grabbed my phone, read my messages, and sat me in the van. I told them I hadn’t done anything wrong, that I was not participating in the protest, that I was a journalist. Their answer was: “Just sit. The bosses will come and figure it out.”
Soon a minivan drove up that had been turned into a prisoner transport vehicle. There were three compartments, two of which had blank doors and a small window. They shoved me in there. I asked for my phone, so I could tell my editors that I had been detained after all.
“You’re not arrested,” one of the OMON officers said.
“But I’m behind bars,” I said.
“Sit quietly,” he replied.
Then they took my passport and saw that I was a Russian citizen.
“So what the fuck are you doing here?”
“I’m a journalist,” I said.
That’s where my dialogue with the OMON officers ended. So I sat in the van and waited for it to be filled with other “not detained” people. This took half an hour. Next to me they sat a 62-year-old pensioner named Nikolai Arkadievich. He told me he had been arrested on his way to the market, when he saw that the OMON was grabbing some boy. “I stood up to him, tried to fight them off,” he said. “I told them: He’s a child, what are you doing?” In the end, the boy ran away, and Nikolai Arkadievich was arrested.
He said he had been hit hard in the liver. He asked for an ambulance, but no one reacted to his request.
Then we were off. I didn’t know at the time where we were going, though it turned out to be the Moscow District Police Department. The sixteen hours I spent there were hell for all of us.
After 20 or 30 minutes of driving, the van stopped. OMON officers on the street, wearing bulletproof vests, shouted at us: “Faces to the ground!”
Several of them flew into our van and bent our arms behind our backs so we could hardly walk.
The guy in front of me had his head slammed into the door frame of the police building on purpose. He screamed in pain. In response, they started beating him on the head and screaming: “Shut up, bitch!” The first time they hit me was when they were taking me out of the van. I hadn’t bent down low enough and got a punch to the head, then a knee to the face.
In the station, they first took us into a room on the fourth floor. It was full of people lying on the floor like a living carpet, and we had to walk right over them. I felt very uncomfortable that I stepped on someone’s hand, but I couldn’t see where I was going at all, because my head was bent towards the floor. “Everyone on the floor, face down,” they yelled. There was nowhere to lie, because everywhere people were lying in pools of blood.
I was able to find a place and lie down, not on top of people, but nearby. I could only lie on my stomach, with my face down. I was lucky to be wearing a medical mask, which protected me from the dirty floor into which I had to bury my nose. The guy next to me was trying to make himself more comfortable and accidentally turned his head to the side, immediately getting a kick in the face with an army boot.
Around us were horrific beatings. Everywhere we heard blows, shouts, and screams. I thought that some of the detainees might have broken arms, legs, or spines, because they screamed in pain at the slightest movement.
New detainees were forced to lie down in a second layer. After a while they apparently realized that this was a bad idea, and someone ordered for benches to be brought. I was among those who were allowed to sit on them. But I was allowed to sit only with my head bent low and my hands clasped on the back of my head. Only then did I see where we were — it was the hall of the police station. On the wall were photos of police officers who had distinguished themselves in the service. It seemed a cruel irony — I wondered if the actions of those who were beating us would be assessed in the same way.
That’s how we spent 16 hours.
To ask to go to the bathroom, you had to raise your hand. Some of those who were guarding us allowed this, and took people to the toilet. Others said: “Go right where you are.”
My arms and legs became terribly numb, and my neck hurt. Sometimes they moved us around. Sometimes new officials came and once again took all our data: Last name, where arrested.
At about 2 a.m., new detainees were brought. And this is where the real brutality began. The officers forced the detainees to pray, to read the Lord’s Prayer. Those who refused were beaten with all available means. We heard people being beaten on the floors above and below us. The feeling was that people were being practically trampled into the concrete.
Meanwhile, a battle was going on right under the windows of the police department. We heard flashbang grenades going off outside. The windowpanes and even the doors shook. With each passing hour, with each new batch of detainees, the officers became angrier and crueler. They were genuinely surprised by the continued protests. I heard them talking to each other on the radio, saying that reserve detachments were being called in to suppress the rallies. They were furious that people were staying on the streets despite the fact that they were being brutally beaten, that the people weren’t afraid of them, that they were building barricades and resisting.
“You bitch, who are you putting up barricades against?” one of the officers yelled, beating a detainee. “You want to fight against me? You want a war?”
What really shocked me was that all of these beatings were taking place in front of two female police employees who were registering the detainees and noting down their personal items. In front of their eyes, teenagers 15 or 16 years of age, practically children, were being beaten. It was like beating a woman! And they weren’t even reacting….
For the sake of fairness, it must be said that not all of the officers were sadists. There was one captain who came to us, asked who needed water and who needed to go to the toilet. But he did not react to what his young colleagues were doing in the corridor.
With each new shift, the new officers asked us who we were, where we were from, and when we were detained. But after they saw my Russian passport, their blows no longer seemed to be as strong as when they thought I was a Belorusian.
None of us were allowed to make a single phone call. I’m sure that the relatives of many of those who were with me that night still don’t know where their loved ones are.
At about seven or eight in the morning, the bosses arrived. You could tell they hadn’t come from home, but from the streets of Minsk, where a war was raging.
They started counting the detainees, and it turned out that two were missing. They started running around the offices, trying to figure out where they had gone. In the end they never found out. When I was lying on the floor, out of the corner of my eye I saw someone being carried out on a stretcher. The person wasn’t moving, and I don’t know if they were alive.
After that, we were all transferred to the first floor and put into cells. They were designed for two people, but were packed with about 30. The process was accompanied by fierce swearing and more beatings. “Tighter, tighter!” they yelled. Among my cellmates were both pensioners and young people. There I met Nikolai Arkadyevich again. He stood with us for half an hour, then they took him out and put him in an adjacent empty cell.
Within an hour, the walls and ceiling of the cells were covered in condensation. Some people got tired of standing and sat on the floor. But there was no air at all, and they fainted. Those who remained standing were dying in the heat. That’s how we spent two or three hours waiting for our transfer. Where to, we didn’t know.
The doors opened. “Faces to the wall!” the officers yelled, then they started wringing our arms behind our backs and dragged us across the floor through the whole building. In the prisoner transport van they again started laying us in piles, like a living carpet.
“Your home is prison,” they yelled. Those who lay on the floor were suffocating from the weight of bodies: there were three more people on top.
In the van the officers kept beating people for various reasons: for their tattoos, or for long hair. “You fag, they’re going to take turns fucking you in prison,” they yelled.
People lying on the steps asked to be allowed to change their position. But instead they got blows on the head with rubber truncheons.
We spent an hour in this state. I thought that this long delay must have been related to the fact that they simply didn’t know what to do with us, since all the detention centers were full.
But then once again the OMON officers started shouting: “Crawl apart and kneel on your haunches.” They made us clasp our hands on the backs of our heads. It was impossible to lean back into a seat or to straighten up. Those who disobeyed were beaten mercilessly. They were allowed to change the position of their feet only rarely. You had to raise your hand, give your full name, tell them where you came from and where you were detained.
If a guard didn’t like your last name, your tattoo, or your appearance, they didn’t let you move your legs, and beat you if you asked again. Then they said that changing your position would be seen as an attempt to escape, and you could get shot on the spot.
Requests to stop to go to the toilet were ignored. They just told us to go where we were. Some couldn’t hold it, and we drove on in squelching excrement. When our guards got bored, they made us sing songs, mostly the Belarusian national anthem, and filmed us on their phones. When they didn’t like our performance, they beat us again. When someone sang badly, they made him sing again and judged his performance. “If you think it hurts, it doesn’t even hurt yet. It’s going to hurt in jail. Your loved ones won’t see you again,” they said.
“You idiots are sitting here, and your Tikhanovskaya Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an opposition leader and presidential rival to Lukashenko, had left the country under pressure from the authorities. fucked off from the country. And you’re not going to have lives anymore,” one of the guards said.
The drive took two and a half hours. Two and a half hours of pain and blood.
While we drove, I managed to talk to one of our guards. It was at this point that I realized that they were not OMON officers, but members of the SOBR special forces unit. Of course, I was beaten for this, but I don’t regret it, because later he allowed me to sit in a more comfortable position. I asked him why they had detained me, why I had gotten hit in the neck with a shield, why they had beat me in the kidneys.
“We’re just waiting for you to start setting fires in the streets,” he said. “And then we’re going to start shooting you. We have an order. There was a great country, the Soviet Union, and because of fags like you, it died. Because nobody put you in your places in time. If you [Russians] think you’ve introduced your Tikhanovskaya here, she’s powdered your brains. You should know that you’re not going to get another Ukraine. We won’t let Belarus become a part of Russia.”
“What about you, you fucker, what are you doing here?” he asked me.
“I’m a journalist, I came to write about what’s happening here.”
“So what did you write, bitch? You’ll remember this text for a long time.”
One young guy whose nerves had been shot from the beatings and the pain yelled: “Stop torturing us, just take us out and shoot us.”
“You fuckers won’t get out of it so easy,” one of the guards said.
During this long hellish drive, I understood that among the SOBR officers that were guarding us, there were both sadists and ideological ones who thought they were really saving their homeland from external and internal enemies. Those were the ones you could have dialogue with.
We didn’t know where we were going: To a temporary facility, or a pre-trial detention center, or a prison, or maybe to a nearby forest, where they’d beat us half to death or simply kill us. I’m not exaggerating about the last option: The feeling was that anything was possible.
When we reached our destination — at the time I didn’t yet know where we were — we stood there for an hour or two. Seven other vans had come along with ours, and there was a line. When the order came to leave the vans, we were taken out in a crab position, on our knees, taken into some kind of basement where there were some men and service dogs.
This made us all the more terrified. But in the end, this part was not as bad as the Moscow District police station.
For a long time they led us along some corridors, then took us into the prison yard. Just like where prisoners go for walks in the movies. And for us, this seemed almost like paradise.
For the first time in a day we were able to lower our hands, stretch, and lie down. And the main thing was, no one was beating us. One guy had an injured spine, in the police station the OMON officers had jumped on him. His knee was knocked out, it was actually dangling and hanging to the side. He went out into this yard and simply collapsed.
For the first time, we were treated like human beings: They brought us a bucket to go to the toilet, which some of us hadn’t done for a day. They brought us a 1.5-liter bottle of water. It wasn’t much for 25 people, but it was something.
“They’re not going to beat us anymore today?” one of the detainees asked the man who brought the bucket and water.
“No,” he replied in surprise, “They’re just going to put you in your cells.”
For the first time in a day we were able to talk amongst ourselves. There were entrepreneurs, IT workers, metal workers, two engineers, a construction worker, and former prisoners. One of these said that this was not a temporary facility and not a pre-trial detention center, but a prison in Zhodino. He knew, because he had served time here. Soon my acquaintance Nikolai Arkadievich was brought into the yard too.
A man in uniform stepped onto the footbridge over the prison yard. “Telizhenko? Is there a Nikita Telizhenko here?” he yelled. I responded. He spoke with a man standing next to him, and then yelled: “Nikita, come to the doors, they’re going to come get you.”
My fellow detainees were very happy for me. “Well, they’re finally taking you away,” Nikolai Arkadievich said in parting.
The man in uniform turned out to be Colonel Ilyushkevich of the Department of Corrections of the Belarusian Interior Ministry. He said that I and one other Russian (a RIA Novosti correspondent) would be taken away. Who would take us away, I didn’t know. “The KGB or people from the embassy,” I thought. They gave me my things back and we went out of the prison gate.
There were a lot of people standing there: Relatives, people who were looking for their loved ones, human rights activists. We were met by a woman who said she was from the Belarusian migration service. She took us into the city of Zhodino itself, to the migration department, where they took our fingerprints and gave us deportation orders. According to these, the RIA Novosti correspondent and I were supposed to leave the country by midnight. At that time it was already 10:30 p.m.
In her words, I was supposed to have a court hearing tomorrow. She could not explain on what charges, though she said I could have gotten a term of 15 days to half a year. I never received any documents about any administrative or criminal offences and was not officially charged with anything.
Then a staffer from the Russian Embassy in Belarus arrived. He said that, in order to find us, the Russian ambassador personally called the Belarusian interior minister. The diplomat put us into a car and drove us back to Russia.
We managed to cross the border in the remaining hour and a half, and came to Smolensk at 2:30 in the morning. The consul bought us each a hamburger, because neither I nor my colleague had any Russian money. He took us to a hotel and drove away.
Translated by Ilya Lozovsky