It has been months since the presidential election in Belarus, the election that set in motion an unprecedented level of violence. Alexander Taraikovsky from Minsk, Gennady Shutov from Brest and Alexander Vikhor from Gomel were the first victims of the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. And there is still not a word on whether their murder cases will ever be investigated.
Alexander Taraikovsky, Minsk
“It’s been my personal tragedy”
People still keep coming to the place where Alexander Taraikovsky was shot to death, they are bringing fresh flowers, leaving their posters and trace out the words “Не Забудем” (“We will not forget”) on the tile. Utility workers took many attempts to cover it with salt yet each time the words would emerge there again. Though this is not something that Elena German, Alexander’s common-law wife, sees every day. Since 10th August she has only visited this spontaneous memorial once.
“I was once riding my scooter past the place. Didn’t want to reopen my wounds, but I got the flowers and gave it a try. As I stepped there, I burst into tears. Cannot believe how Sasha’s father drives here on his way to work every day,” she gets quiet and brushes her tears away.
She asked to have an interview far from the place where her Sasha spent the last minutes of his life, so we meet next to the house that Alexander Taraikovsky left to never come back in the evening of 10th August.
Elena, do you recall your last talk with your husband? What was it about?
“We went to work together, there was no internet then, so he was trying to download VPN to watch the news. In the evening we were playing with the kids in the playground [Elena has an elder son from her previous marriage – Ed.] and then at around 8 pm, he arrived at a decision to go to Beruta street. You know, I didn’t even worry at the time. I thought he wouldn’t even be able to reach the district, as the day before when we went out together and met the police cordon.
I thought this time they would just block the streets and he would come back home. Although I tried to stop him in the corridor, he insisted on him going. It’s only later that I got to know that he had gone there to protest intentionally, he even made an arrangement with a friend. He just didn’t want me to worry. The last time we talked was around 10 pm, I could hear the explosions. He also added: ‘You wouldn’t believe what’s going on here’. I asked him to go home. ‘I’m coming,'” he answered.
They lived next to Grushevka station, but Alexander had another flat next to Pushkinskaya, which was being repaired in the summer. So Elena thought that he went there to pick some tools. The woman admits that does regret that she didn’t stop Alexander then.
I was sure it wasn’t Sasha who had died. I thought then what a tragedy happened to someone.”
“On 10th August, at around 11 pm in the course of the mass unrest at Pritytskogo street, a crowd of protesters created a roadblock to stop the traffic. Trying to confront special forces who arrived to deblock the streets, one of the protesters attempted to throw an unidentified explosive device at the officers. It exploded in his hand and the injuries appeared to be lethal,” this is the message published on the Telegram channel of the Ministry of Internal Affairs by midnight.
Elena couldn’t see this message as there was no internet, at 2 am she called again, she heard the line ringing but no one picked up. She wasn’t that much alarmed by that, he could have met someone on the way and it might have been just hard to get home due to numerous roadblocks.
“I realised something terrible had happened only in the morning. It was the first time Sasha didn’t come home at night. Confused, I was trying to figure out what I should do to find a person. There was no internet still, so I called all the relatives and decided to go to the Regional Internal Affairs Department. I had no clue where it was,” Elena tells us about involving all the relatives, friends and acquaintances in the search for Alexander.
We started at Frunzensky Internal Affairs Department, but there was no list of detainees. Because of the internet issues, we could only open Onliner.by webpage, where I could see all the events of the previous night at Pushkinskaya station chronologically. I was so happy to see Sasha in one of the pictures as I was scrolling the website. I went to check for him in the apartment at Pushkinskaya and saw some investigation unit working next to the station.
Did you already know about a killed person at the protest then?
“Yes, yet I was sure it wasn’t Sasha. The official MIA’s version was about some explosive device and I was 100% sure he would never take up arms. I caught myself thinking that someone just faced a real disaster.”
On 11th August no one reached Elena. She visited detention centres in Okrestina, then Zhodino, but wouldn’t find Alexander there. And the next day she went to Okrestina as well.
“I thought that the worst that could happen was the criminal case. He wouldn’t have gone to the paddy wagon himself, I guess he would have been fighting his way free if he had been detained. So I was standing there at Okrestina imagining him being released and how I would give him a hug.”
Elena’s brother, who lives in the suburbs, was trying to keep her updated on the latest news as he could get connected to the Internet once in a while. It was him who first saw MIA’s message that the deceased was 34, with previous conviction. Taraikovsky was also 34 and he was convicted at the age of 19, but having those facts, Elena was still convinced that her husband was alive.
“It was unbearable to stay at home, so I decided to go to the City Clinical Hospital of Emergency Care. But where was I supposed to look for? On 12th August an investigation officer called Sasha’s father and this is how we learnt. I cannot remember what was next. It’s all a blur now,” Elena is trying to find words, her voice is shaking, she exhales and takes another pause. ”
I am all alone now, feeling lost and don’t know what to do next.”
Next comes the most emotionally difficult part of the conversation. Only Elena and her relatives know how she lived before and after the funerals.
“I always thought that if you come to the morgue and describe the person, they will let you in. Turns out it’s not quite so. They instructed us to come back with the prosecutor, but the prosecutor informed us that we were to go to the Investigative Committee where we were being interrogated for three hours. In the end, we went back to the mortuary without our prosecutor. Our main goal was to look at the injury but they wouldn’t let us see the whole body, just the chest. Alexander’s father wanted to see if the bullet went clean through and later when they gave us the body back, he turned it round right in the coffin and saw no traces of the injury.”
Were you offended by the official statement of the police where they portrayed Alexander a kind of a misfit and didn’t even bother to apologize for the version with the explosive?
“Sure. When we came to identify the body, there was some man, perhaps a forensic scientist, who called the prosecutor. When the latter asked him something, he looked at us and he replied: ‘They seem normal’. They might have assumed that a previously convicted person would necessarily lead a dissolute life. But you didn’t know him! He was someone’s son, husband, brother, to say the least. Who entitled them to take control over someone’s life? Do they think they can just shoot anyone with a criminal record? I knew Sasha for six years. He was in a tough situation.
He got into prison trying to save his mom from her partner, it was involuntary manslaughter. He had done his sentence: five years in jail [corrective labour colony – Ed.] and two years in an open prison. The man was released almost ten years ago. Actually, this prison experience taught him how to value any moment of joy, he was rather hot-tempered at first, but he didn’t like this trait and constantly tried to improve himself. Sasha was passionate about his job and I used to help him. He started his own business, he would make windshield sunshades for cars. He had an ambition, was making plans to expand his business, was already trying to have an agreement on certain papers, but he didn’t get a chance.”
Elena only has a smile on her face reminiscing about their family life. Their relationships were not ideal, they happened to have rows but, as a rule, Alexander would always be the one that took the first step to make up.
Every Sunday Sasha used to throw a family outing: we would ride electric scooters, go to the beach at Drozdy or go to the children’s rooms, Elena shows the pictures of their family life on her phone. These are the shots with Alexander holding their three-year-old daughter in his arms or hugging Nastya.
“Nastya is a father’s daughter, he always knew how to comfort her no matter what. Here’s she crying and a moment later they laugh together. We didn’t tell Nastya anything after the funerals, I didn’t know how, so I went to a therapist. I still think she didn’t quite realise what had happened. Every day she is waiting for her dad to pick her from kindergarten. And when I come, she turns her back on me and says: ‘I wanted it to be my dad.’ In her dreams, she sees that her dad is home. Now I can feel not only my own pain but hers as well. Living together with Sasha, we used to discuss every decision, but now, as I am alone, I feel lost and have no idea what to do next.”
I am just going with the flow.”
Elena recalls the time when they became interested in the election campaign. They were researching the information about the candidates and even visited a huge rally of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at Bangalor square.
“We had some hope for changes, there is still hope, otherwise, it’s scary to live.”
She also hopes to finally witness the launch of her husband’s murder case. Although there’s still no progress there.
“I am not subpoenaed to testify, I get occasional calls from the prosecutor, he asks me some questions to clarify the information. The security guard from Sasha’s work is reported to have visited the Investigative Committee. Sasha’s friends were interrogated, so I guess they were trying to develop his profile. Once the prosecutor asked me to give him the digital code from Sasha’s phone and I did because I knew there was nothing there to be afraid of.
The key wouldn’t work as it turned out. How smart he might have been to change the password once he realised what was going on. Each time I ask the prosecutor whether they are going to start the case, he replies only: ‘We are working on that’. He expected the longest term to consider the case [three months] from the very beginning. The lawyer has already had the claim ready.”
Do you believe in successful resolution and the launch of the case?
You know it must be like that in accordance with the law. I don’t know what could be the grounds for not initiating the criminal procedure. Although I am aware that it’s unlikely to happen.
Elena, did you ask the prosecutor to explain the official version that Alexander had something explode in his hands whereas it is clear from the video that he didn’t have anything in his arms?
“I asked another question, why they didn’t contact relatives for two days. He said he was only interrogating.”
A lot of compassionate people supported the family after Alexander’s death: they were sending letters, offered help and donated money.
“I don’t have the heart to spend the money. I didn’t earn it. But I don’t know what’s gonna happen next, so let it be a safety cushion. But how am I to make plans for life? I cannot understand, I’m just going with the flow.”
When asked whether she needs any help, Elena responds humbly: “There are so many other people who need help now. I have been helped and I am really grateful.”
“It’s my personal tragedy. When I feel like crying, I call my relatives. For now I’m alright without special psychological help, I guess I’m doing well. My kids and work help me a lot to get distracted. And I decided to continue what Sasha started from scratch, he was so proud of it and dreamt to pass it to the kids. I also started sewing to distract. I know that life goes on, it’s just very hard so far…”
Gennady Shutov, Brest
“There is not enough evidence to file a death lawsuit”
An improvised memorial for Gennady Shutov from Brest appeared on 19th August, the first day after his death, and is still there. The parapet next to a 20-storey house on Moskovskaya street is full of flowers, lamps and pictures of the deceased. Here he was injured in the head on 11th August. Gennady’s wife Tatiana Marahovskaya is a frequent guest here.
“I happen to come here with friends, sometimes I come by myself. They often remove this memorial, these flowers and photos. I do understand the people who live in this house, they might be unwilling to watch this daily. But have some sympathy, it really hurts. So we come here and leave the flowers.”
Tatiana tells us that this improvised memorial helps her to live through what had happened.
“I’ve been working this entire month without weekends. It’s easier at work and really difficult when I’m at home.”
Before she met Gennady, Tatiana already had a daughter and they both had a great relationship. Mother didn’t try to hide what happened from the girl.
“She was devastated. Even though we didn’t want to take the child to the cemetery, she was very determined in her decision to go. She was in tears and said she wanted to say goodbye.”
Tatiana remembers what happened on 11th August as if it was yesterday. Gennady was a truck driver and it was his third day-off after a two-week trip. In the morning Tatiana went to work and he stayed at home
“We called each other a lot that day. He was riding his bike across the city. Then he told me he would go to the garage as there was some leak in his bike. Then he called back to warn he would stay with the guys in the garage. They were about to fix the bike, then drink a bit. I came back home from work and made dinner. I called him at around 10 pm to make sure where he was. He informed me he already was on Moskovskaya street, he was about to take a taxi and come home. I called again at 19.36 and he was not answering.”
Gennady’s relatives found him in the regional hospital with an open craniocerebral gun injury. On 13th August he was transported to Minsk military hospital by helicopter. He died six days later. The medical record states that the cause of death is “the firearm injury of undefined intentions”.
Just like Tatiana, Gennady’s elder daughter Anastasia Baranchuk often visits the memorial to pay tribute to the late father.
“It’s nice that people remember, that they still keep bringing flowers but at the same time this reminder hurts a lot.”
Gennady’s relatives keep trying to investigate the incident themselves. Anastasia tells us that they don’t receive any updates on the official investigation.
Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Investigative Committee recently replied to her claim. But they just attached her claims to file a murder lawsuit to another file of a criminal investigation that they initiated on 12th August as of “violent resistance to law enforcement officials”. They also added that “the circumstances of Shutov’s injuries and death are just one area of the investigation”.
In their letter, the central office of the investigative committee also stated that:” People involved in assault and battery towards Shutov will undergo legal assessment in the course of the investigation. Currently, there is not enough evidence to file a death lawsuit [Article 139, Murder]”.
Anastasia says that the investigation is run by the prosecutors from Minsk. “My father is still a suspect in this case. The case is still not closed due to his death.”
Anastasia tells us about Gennady’s friend Alexander Kordukov who is also a suspect in the case now. He was there on 11th August, when Gennady was injured.
“He was transported to Minsk as well. So everything is in Minsk now. If I get it right, the hearing is going to be there too.”
Last time the committee commented on the death of a Brest citizen was on 19th August. The office claimed that “Shutov had been inadvertently shot in the head whilst attacking the officials on a public security mission”.
On 6th October, Brest region prosecutor Victor Klimov was visiting the students of Brest Technical University. Respomding to a question about Shutov’s death he said that he “committed unlawful acts”.
“The case is under investigation. Another person who also was there has been detained. He was hiding for a long time. He is currently identified, detained and is giving testimony. When there is a hearing, you will get to know everything. […] I should say that unfortunately there was nothing heroic about the deceased.”
Alexander Vikhor, Gomel
“Violence and battery broke him down”
Sasha’s room is tidy and quiet. There is his portrait and a memorial candle on the table. It’s been burning for 60 days. Since the very moment when they found out about Sasha’s death. This whole time his relatives are trying to realise what happened to their son that August when he first found himself in a paddy wagon and three days later in the morgue. It’s been several months since the inspection initiated by the Investigative Committee but the causes of Alexander Vikhor’s death are still unclear.
The 25-year-old was detained in the evening on 9th August on Sovetskaya street in Gomel while he was on the way to his girlfriend. His relatives were searching for him for three days: they were calling and visiting the Internal Affairs Department and spent nights outside detention facilities. Only when Sasha was reported missing on 12th August, they found out he had been dead since 11th August.
On the same day, the Investigative Committee introduced their own version of the events. Alexander Vikhor was supposedly arrested for active participation at an unauthorised mass event. He was held administratively liable by court order for 10 days. The man was sent to the place of his sentence serving, where his health deteriorated sharply. Subsequently, the man was taken to hospital, where he died.
“In the course of the initial examination, no visible injuries that could have caused death were found,” they commented.
A day later, an investigator told his family that Sasha had died of a drug overdose. The parents were simply shocked: their son had never even smoked! And what drugs after all If he was in custody for several days!? Outraged relatives wrote a complaint and as a result, “the investigator was punished, and his head personally apologized to us.”
“Then there was a funeral and I have a hazy recollection of that. Forty days after, the pain did not go away, but it seems that it has become even more unbearable, admits Sasha’s mother, Svetlana Grigorievna. But we must live on somehow. After work, I run to the cemetery, then go back to the empty apartment. And also wait for a call or a letter from the investigator.”
The Vikhors appealed to the prosecutor’s office to initiate a criminal case against police officers for unlawful actions against their son, but the only answer was to wait for the results of the Investigative Committee. In early September, the relatives were finally invited to the Investigative Committee.
“The conversation lasted three hours, and this whole time I was asked some weird questions with little relevance to the case. Like when Sasha first went to the kindergarten or how well he studied or what his interests were. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this if I hadn’t found out that later Sasha’s acquaintances and friends were called to the investigator and asked different questions like whether Sasha was taking any medications or pills,” says Svetlana.
Sasha’s father Alexander Mikhailovich recalls: “By the way, the neighbours told me some guys also had come here, to Kostyukovka. They interrogated almost everyone on the street about the kind of family he had, whether they had had any violations, asked to describe Sasha and things like that. We realise they were digging for some information, but they wouldn’t find anything – we have a law-abiding family and great children.”
The Vikhors saw the body of his son in a morgue. They believe that Sasha was beaten, while experts had a different explanation.
“They were trying to convince us not to look. Then they opened a bag a little. I opened it completely then. They certainly did not expect that. As well as the fact that I would examine the body. I lifted his little head: on the back of his head, there was a big dent, like a notch. They said it might have been due to trepanation. I noticed that the ribs were slipping, to which I was told that it could have been broken when they tried to bring him into consciousness. Hematomas under the knees, on the lumbar region, on the shoulders, elbows and wrists have been called cadaveric spots.”
Sasha’s relatives started looking for witnesses – the detainees who were with Sasha during the last days and hours of his life. They were found: someone was with Vikhor in a paddy wagon, someone was lying next to him for several hours facing the floor in the Internal Affairs Department, someone was with him the next day in court. All of them have already testified in the Investigative Committee.
This is what the witnesses recall. Late in the evening Sasha and the rest of the detainees were taken to the Zheleznodorozhny District Department of Internal Affairs. There, in the gym, they were issued all night. In the morning they took him to the detention centre – and Sasha felt terrible already there. He would lie all the time there. Some of the inmates even let him lie on their lower tier. The witnesses also said that they had repeatedly told the detention centre workers that Sasha needed help, but people behind the doors only advised to wash the guy with cold water. On 10th August, Sasha was taken to the trial, after which his condition got even worse. Witnesses recalled that he began to behave strangely as if he was lost in time and space.
“They say he was in shock and kept repeating: ‘Guys, I’m innocent.’ I know my son: he believed he was not guilty, and could not understand in any way why he was being tried. The violence and battery broke him down. While my son was actually healthy. Two months prior, he had a medical examination at the request of the military registration and enlistment office, he was not registered with a single doctor,” Svetlana cries.
Back in August, at the funeral, one of the men, who had been with Sasha for some time after his arrest, talked about his strange behaviour.
“After the trial, they wanted to take us to the temporary detention facility, but they took us back to the Internal Affairs Department. There, Sasha got completely lost. He would ask for money to get home, stood up and tried to leave the hall. There was a third-year student of a medical school from Turkmenistan sitting next to him, he said that Sasha needed to go to hospital, because he needed urgent help.”
According to the man, he told the police that Sasha needed help, but no one called an ambulance.
“In the evening we were loaded into a paddy wagon, Sasha was put in a so-called “glass” [a narrow solitary cell – Ed.] and there he just went crazy. He would shout and call for his parents. Seemed like it finally occured to the policemen that something was clearly wrong with him. They “treated” him with tear gas. Then they took us out, but left him inside.”
At around 10 pm every witness lost track of Sasha. The guy was taken to the hospital at 2 am, he died at around 4 am. Where he was before he was brought to healthcare workers is the main question the answer to which Sasha’s parents are still looking for.