“It Was Living Hell.” Heartbreaking Stories Of People Detained After Election Protests

“Eighty people had to share two liters of water when they gave it to us once in about four hours. Not nearly enough for everyone to even have a small sip. We had to stand in a prison yard for 28 hours. No one fed us,” says Vitaly.

Minsk, Belarus, 2020. A three-time mini-football champion of Belarus, a student, and a typographer released from a temporary detention centre on Okrestin Street told about the conditions they had to face there.

Warning: graphic accounts of violence and graphic language.

“What changes do you need? Here they are!”

Sergey Podalinskiy, 38, sportsman, a long-time member of the Belarusian national mini-football team, a three-time champion of Belarus. He was arrested near the Yubileinaya Hotel on the night of 9-10 August. He was let go on the 11th.

A detention centre on Okrestin Street in Minsk

“My wife and I were coming back home after all the attacks and explosions by the Victory monument. We asked the officers how to get to the car safely. They helped us and a scared woman on a bicycle. Then we encountered a large group of riot policemen at the Masherova Avenue and asked them for directions. They dismissed the women but checked my documents. They twisted my arms and threw me into a paddy wagon. They seethingly asked why I needed “changes” and what my white T-shirt meant. I had an ornamented T-shirt on which I bought at a state-owned shop, which was produced by a state-owned factory. I said that we live in a country where everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

They beat everyone and asked indignantly: ‘What changes do you need? Here they are!’ but they weren’t too aggressive in the paddy wagon. One of the chief officers even asked them to be less harsh. There’s a mark on my t-shirt from a military ankle boot, I guess I’ll frame it and keep it. They drove us to a detention centre on Okrestin Street in the paddy wagon. It was total hell. You can’t do that to the citizens of your country. We had to kneel for three hours while they brought in new batches of people. When someone asked for some water or the permission to use a bathroom, they beat that person.

I lost sense of time. I guess we spent three-four hours in that state. They were screaming at us, called us names, threatened to shoot us. They put 21 people in my jail cell, even though it was a cell for four. It was terribly hot, there was only a small hole in the window. People were sweating buckets. No food, just water. After 14-15 hours they asked us to sign the statements. They said we’d get a fine if we agreed, the refusal would cost us a 15-day prison detainment. People wanted to read the statements to see what was in them. To which they said, ‘You’ll have 15 days to read them’.

Sergey Podalinskiy (on the right)

Well, we heard that some girls from another cell were let go once they signed the papers. We were elated and agreed to sign them, too. Only five people or so refused to do so. Everyone had the same thing written in the papers: ‘I was [at the rally] at 10 pm, shouted “Long Live Belarus”. How come? At 10 pm, I was still at the polling station! To our objections, they only had one answer: ‘Just sign it, we have a lot of work as it is’. They led us out of the holding cell. We were excited. Then, we were ordered to kneel again, and the next thing we know, they had us march to the third floor into another cell.

There were 17 people already, so counting us the newcomers, 38 in total. In a cell for four people. They closed the door, and we didn’t see anyone for the next 11 or 12 hours. It was impossible to breathe, people were crammed in the small room like in a subway during rush hour. We took turns to sit on beds. We asked for someone to come and open the window in the corridor to allow some air circulation. They did. And there was tap water there. One guy had a fractured leg. He asked for a doctor, but to no avail. He told us that he set the bone in by himself the first day, somehow.

His leg was swollen, it was enlarged and bluish in colour. He felt ill, but he was soldiering on. Someone shared some painkillers with him, so there was at least some relief for him. We had an accredited election observer among us. He was working on the polling station and called the police to report a violation but they arrested him instead. He hadn’t eaten anything since the morning of 9th August, so he had it worse than us. He asked for food once, but they told him, no. There was a guy with a dual Belarusian and Israeli citizenship. He was at a café, went out for a smoke and got arrested. Someone was simply returning home from their night shift at 2 am.

Photo by Sergey Podalinskiy

The next day, they started summoning us to court hearings, one person at a time. Some people were back in just five minutes, got slapped with a 14-day sentence. We realized that even though we signed the papers, they simply deceived us. Out of 38 people, only two were fined, including me. Everyone looked decent, we had no funny-looking people among us. We saw some detained girls, they stood tall and proud, and on top of it all, they were also worried about us. I later learned that one girl was pregnant. In that situation, I felt like I was an animal in a cage with no rights.

I was released on the 11th. I hadn’t had anything to eat for two days. They strongly hinted that I shouldn’t file any complaints. I was shocked by the overall attitude. How can one do this to people before they are proven guilty? And even if they are indeed guilty? I watch the videos of arrests and I cry because I know what will happen to those people.”

“Girls were on their periods. They were told to use their t-shirts.”

Karina (not actual name), a student, was arrested on 9 August in the center of Minsk. She was let out on the 11th. She says she wasn’t participating in the protests.

“My friends and I simply wanted to get to the metro to get home. We asked some riot police officers for advice on how to do so without ending up being arrested. At some point, more riot police arrived and started beating people. A girl was riding her electric scooter, and they dragged her down by the hair, while other policemen laughed. I asked, ‘Why are you laughing? What are you doing?’ One of them pushed me on the ground, I scratched my arm. We were put on a yellow bus and transported to a detention centre in Okrestin Street.

Photo is used for illustartion purposes only. Relatives meet the detainees at Okrestin Street.

Their attitude was horrendous. A brutal officer at the entrance was grabbing people by their necks and throwing them at the walls. We had to keep our heads down, feet shoulder width apart. They confiscated our phones, girls had to discard their bras. After the prison inspection we were sent to the holding cell. At first, there were 13 girls in a cell for four people. There were tables and a toilet. It smelled awful in there, cockroaches and bedbugs everywhere. When we asked for food they said, ‘No. [expletive], that’ll teach you to vote for the right candidate.’

We hoped they would let us go in a day. We asked for toilet paper, for some water. We were told to drink the tap water, but it smelled like chlorine, so we were wary. There was no toilet paper. Many girls started their period and asked for some sanitary products. They told them to use their T-shirts. So the girls had to use newspapers, or wash their underwear every time it got soiled. The next day we had to choose: sign our statements or get 15 days in prison. I asked to study the paper, but they threatened I’d get a real prison sentence. I cried, I had no idea what I had just signed my name under.

They promised to free us within an hour. We were hopeful because we didn’t have anything to eat in the past 24 hours. We were hungry, dizzy, it was so hot in there. Instead of letting us go, they moved us to another cell with twenty people. And we were 13. That makes 33 people. There were only three bunk beds. It was impossible to sleep or sit down, we were terrified, hungry. We asked for a doctor, and they sent one after two days. I felt dizzy, I hadn’t had anything to eat. They just gave me some sedatives. From time to time, they mercifully opened a food pass but threatened to stop doing so should we “misbehave”.

Famous Protest Photo: Law Enforcer And Protester Tell Own Versions Of Incident

It turns out that asking for a doctor means behaving badly, so they closed that small window, cutting off air. Through the cell window we could see people in the prison yard, shouting. Then they brought in three more girls. They were election observers who got a 7-day detention despite their attorneys’ efforts. They were luckier than us because their parents managed to give them some stuff. One new girl shared some peanuts with us, so that was some relief.

My parents were looking for me all this time. The trial was on 11 August. A male judge mostly fined people, while the woman sent everyone to spend 5, 7, 9 days in prison. I got lucky because I just got a fine (about $200). They warned me against “participating in more protests,” because then, it would be a felony. I feel scared. I dream of leaving this country. I would like to appeal against the court decision but I’m not sure how to do it.”

“We had to stand in a prison yard for 28 hours, no one fed us.”

Vitaly Savko, 39, works as a typographer. He was arrested on 10 August and was let go on the 12th.

“Three riot police officers jumped out and, having beated me harshly, threw me into their van. There was blood on the floor, and they made me stand on my knees. They drove me to a detention centre on Okrestin Street. Heads down, we ran to be body-searched, they were beating us with their batons along the way. If you stumbled and fell, they’d beat the living daylights out of you. Were given small pouches for the stuff from our pockets. During the inspection they made us strip naked. After that, we were moved to the prison yard.

Photo is provided by Vitaly Savko

It’s just four concrete walls, a concrete floor, and a lattice under the open sky. The room was around 30 square meters. There were 80 of us. We had to stand there for 28 hours, since it was virtually impossible to sit down. We came there at about 9.30 pm and were allowed to use the bathroom for the first at around 1 pm the next day. In those 28 hours, they let us use the bathroom twice, the third time was for emergency cases only. The WC room was small, and they could cram up to 20 people inside, and only give us 15 minutes.

Eighty people were allowed two liters of water once in four hours. It was not nearly enough. They were torturing us on purpose. There were people of different ages, 60, 15, 18. A young man businessman was leaving a business center when he was arrested. Four days prior, he had a surgery, so he felt unwell in the cell. We managed to get a doctor for him. The guy didn’t come back from the doctor’s, so maybe they let him go. Many people felt unwell, some were taken away. Closer to the end, 73 of us remained out of 80. Some had seizures, someone’s nose was bleeding endlessly.

A guy with a heart condition gave us a scare — his lips and hands turned blue, but they gave him some medicine and brought him back to the cell. We helped him lie down on the concrete floor, which, well, not the best option, but… One guy was riding a bicycle and got punched in the face by the riot police. In the prison yard next to, there were people who had been there longer than us, they weren’t given any food or water. We could hear them shouting, asking for some food and water. The officers went in there and started asking, ‘So who’s hungry? Who’s thirsty?’

We could hear them battering people, the screams were so loud the whole neighbourhood knew what was going on. They made people run in circles and then kneel, over and over again. They wanted to find out who complained about food and water. They beat people three or four times. Ultimately, everyone fell silent, we only heard groans. By 1 am they put us on our knees, hands on the wall, and started taking our personal details. If someone’s kneeling position was “incorrect,” that someone got punched in the kidneys.

The next day they threw a half-kilo loaf of bread. That was for 80 people. I read somewhere that it’s better not to eat it, so I gave my portion to someone. Those who ate it had diarrhea. There was no toilet paper, no bathroom visits were allowed. In the evening, it started getting really cold, and we were all wearing shorts and T-shirts. So we banged at the door and demanded to be moved inside, to the cells. In 1.5 hours they moved us there. 40 people per camera. But it was like a resort for us: tap water, toilet and wooden floor.

We were sleeping in turns. At 4 am, they brought us a sheet of paper and a pen and told us to write down our information again. Then we were moved out of the cells. Some people were released, some stayed jailed. They let me go, but not right away. The riot police made us do squats. Those who made “mistakes” were beaten. Then we did pushups. There were several rounds of “exercises” and beating. They didn’t give us any documents, nothing. Outside, I called a cab.

One guy couldn’t walk, so I shared my ride with him, took him to the dorm. He’s an orphan, doesn’t have any money or anyone to call. He is only 22. He said he had to go to the military registration and enlistment office the following day, but they took his passport and would only give it back in four days. I advised him to log the bodily injuries incurred as a result of battery. I also called a cab for another person to get to Zhdanovichi. I won’t be reporting any injuries. I have many bruises, but I still can walk, so I’ll just go to work.”

Source: TUT.BY 

Translated by Kseniya Kalaur, edited by Streamline and Kate Bolokhovietskaya on a voluntary basis.