Protests In Belarus: Minsker Beaten Up, Infected With COVID-19 In Detention

In the evening of 11 August, Maxim Dovzhenko was detained by riot police as he was coming home with his friends. After spending more than two days at a detention centre on Okrestin Street he was diagnosed with a closed traumatic brain injury, multiple haematomas, a chest injury, a wrist burn and COVID-19.

Maxim said there were 38 people in his cell. “One of them expressly told that he had coronavirus: he self-isolated, went out to buy some cigarettes and got arrested. But the detention centre employees didn’t react to this, they only threatened us that COVID-19 might not be the only diagnosis we’d have afterwards,” Maxim recalls the events of that night.

belarus election protests detention okrestin street

August 12, 2020, Minsk

In the evening of 11 August, he and three his friends were driving from Kamennaya Gorka to Zeleny Lug to grab a bite in a local shopping centre. That’s how it all started.

“Next to Monetka, there was a police car and police officers were arresting people. Since we had nothing to fear, we drove closer to the police car to turn around at a parking lot. Suddenly armed people in uniform approached us and ordered us to get out of the car. They took away our mobile phones and forced us to lay on the grass. After that, a minibus with people lying inside came. We were told to lay on top of them.

After about a minute we were thrown away on the grass next to Riga shopping centre where other detainees were lying. They asked us questions. I was asked about my occupation. I said that I worked at a behaviour and speech change therapy centre. They thought I made fun of them and started hitting me with batons. But I do work at such a centre for kids. Later they asked me if I smoked and put a cigarette out on my hand. Another officer asked where I came from, without waiting for a reply he stepped with his army boot on my groin.”

After that, they pushed all the detainees into a paddy wagon, Maxim says. “Before putting us there, they searched me, took my cigarettes, BYN 70 (left some change), my fitness band, and ordered to crawl into the paddy wagon.”

Maxim admited that until this summer he did not even know about the existence of Okrestin Street in Minsk. When he and his friends were brought there, he could barely understand where he was.

“When they let us out of the paddy wagon, I saw my friend Sviatoslav with his dreadlocks cropped. As we were running through a ‘corridor’ formed by riot police officers, they were hitting us on the back, bottom and legs.”

Maxim recalls spending next five or six hours outside standing on his knees with his face down to the ground.

“I was lucky, compared to the others: unlike other detainees, my hands weren’t fastened behind my back. They kept asking us questions and wrote down our names, phones, passwords. They also hold ‘political conversations’ about the election with us, saying that we were to blame for all what’s happening: you wanted changes – here they are.”

belarus election protests detention okrestin street

Detainees and their relatives getting together after the release. Minsk, August 13, 2020.

Everyone complaining about numb legs were hit with batons. At some point Maxim started to feel nauseous and almost lost consciousness.

“When I asked for medical help, a riot police officer came, hit me on the head and asked if it helped.”

Early in the morning, the detainees were ordered to undress, and then about 150 people were relocated to the yard.

“They were standing on their knees like we did before. We were told to get dressed. The officers promised that the one to kneel down the last would get a ‘back massage’. The yard was crowded and after some time we were allowed to stand up […]. Eventually I met my friends there. Lots of people there were scared and injured: one guy had his arm broken, others had their teeth knocked out. Many people told me they were detained anywhere but at a rally.”

According to Maxim, the detainees were given water – four litres for 137 people – only after a day in detention. In the evening, Maxim and his friends were relocated into a cell for four. Altogether, there were 38 people there.

“It was stuffy in there and smelled like dirty underwear, urine and old sweat. Sviatoslav and I got under the bed and it was the first time for the last couple of days I fell asleep ‘in comfort’. The floor was quite hard but it was better than sleeping outside on the concrete floor.”

In the cell, Maxim got acquainted with his neighbours. One of them said he had COVID-19.

“As far as I remember, he told the officers he had self-isolated and got arrested when he went out to buy some cigarettes. They simply ignored and only threatened that COVID might not be the only diagnosis we would have. We all were pretty calm: getting COVID didn’t seem such a tragedy after everything that we had been through. Although the cell was crowded and stuffy, we had only four bottles to fill with tap water. We used them to drink one by one.”

The next day a man in civilian clothes and started asking us questions: “Did they beat you up? Did they torture you? Do you have any complaints?”

belarus election protests detention okrestin street

August 13, 2020. People waiting for their relatives next to the detention center on Okrestin Street

“After everything that happened, people were afraud to tell the truth. Sviatoslav, with his dreadlocks cropped and eye swollen, sarcastically replied: ‘No, they didn’t hit us at all’. We managed to tell that man that there was a minor among us. He reacted calmly and said that we all would be released soon. When we asked him for medical help for the guy with broken fingers, he promised that a nurse would come later. But no one came.”

After the man’s visit the attitude to detainees changed. Maxim’s friends were released and he was relocated to a cell with fewer people and more beds.

“As we were going to the ground floor, everyone put their hands behind the back, ducked their heads and ran one by one. However, this time we were told that we can just walk normally, ‘everything was fine now’. We came down to the yard, formed two columns and went into a special room one by one to sign some documents.”

Maxim was released without trial in the morning of 14 August. He still can’t figure out why he was arrested.

Volunteers met Maxim Dovzhenko next to the detention facility. They helped him contact his family, gave him food, examined and took photos of his injuries, and called the ambulance. Maxim was taken to Minsk Central Regional Hospital in Borovliany. He was diagnosed with closed brain injury, scapular and knee haematomas, contusion to rib cage, leg abrasions, a left wrist burn. Maxim tested positively for COVID-19 too.

belarus election protests detention okrestin street

A volunteer camp at the detention centre on Okrestin Street in Minsk

Maxim spent one week in hospital. He says he’s feeling better but still has a headache.

“Over time, it doesn’t seem so horrible, although I was terrified then. When you don’t understand why you’ve been arrested. When you are beaten up and tortured, and you don’t know why it’s happening.”

Maxim says he’s going to apply to the Investigative Committee. Unfortunately, he can’t do it now, since he must stay in self-isolation until September. He cannot get back his belongings left at the detention center for the same reason.

“My relatives went there but they only got my shoe laces and two bracelets. My phone hasn’t been found. Seems I’m the only one to get infected with COVID-19. My friends haven’t been tested and they’re feeling fine. Actually, I don’t have many symptoms either. I don’t really know what happened to other detainees.”

Source: TUT.BY