Human Rights Watch calls on the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to urgently investigate the facts of violence, torture and other ill-treatment by Belarusian security forces in the days following the August 9, 2020 presidential election.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 former detainees, 21 men and 6 women, nearly all of whom said they were arrested between August 8 and 12. Some were arrested as they took part in demonstrations that they described as peaceful; others were grabbed off the streets or from their cars. Many shared medical documents and photographs of injuries.
At least five still had bruises and/or wore casts at the time of the interview. Human Rights Watch also spoke with 14 people with knowledge of the arrests and abuse, most between August 20 and 29, in Minsk, Grodno, and Gomel , including witnesses to arrests, healthcare workers, and detainees’ relatives.
The victims described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks, and in at least one case, rape, and said they saw other detainees suffer the same or worse abuse. They had serious injuries, including broken bones, cracked teeth, skin wounds, electrical burns, and mild traumatic brain injuries. Some had kidney damage. Police held detainees in custody for several days, often incommunicado, in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.
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In Grodno, a 29-year-old journalist said that when he was arrested, despite displaying his press credentials, an OMON [riot police] officer broke both his wrists. A medic described witnessing an incident in Minsk on 11 August, in which an OMON officer trying to arrest a motorist who had stopped his car shot a rubber bullet point-blank at him. The medic said she treated the victim at the scene, but he ended up needing surgery to extract the bullet from his lungs.
Detainees said that police and guards confiscated their medications, ignored calls for medical care, and in some cases denied it altogether. In one case, a detainee was denied timely medical attention and fell into a coma in custody. He was clinically dead by the time he was transferred to a hospital. Three healthcare workers said they treated numerous demonstrators and former detainees injured by police. Some of those tortured asked the health workers not to file the violent injury reports that are required by law, for fear of retaliation.
Ales, a 30-year-old IT worker, said he was raped by a senior OMON officer with a truncheon after his arrest at a protest in a police van on August 11 in central Minsk:
[Riot police] demanded that I unlock my phone. I refused. They called a senior officer. He threatened that unless I cooperate, he’d stick his truncheon up my [ass]. He then cut my shorts and my underwear on the back, crosswise, and called out to his officers asking whether anyone had a condom. I was on the floor, face down, but I could see him pull the condom on the truncheon – and then he just pushed the stick into my anus…. Then, he pulled it out and demanded the password again. He kicked and punched me on my ribs, on my face, on my teeth – my two front teeth cracked a bit.
Medical documents he shared with Human Rights Watch confirm hematomas to his scrotum, perianal area, and left eye, and a concussion. Police often denied detainees food and water and denied their requests to go to the toilet. All said they saw dozens of others subjected to similar or worse treatment.
The aim of the abuse was to punish and humiliate. Most reported that OMON and other security forces singled out detainees with so-called “atypical” looks, such as men with long or dyed hair, and people with dreadlocks, piercings, or tattoos, for worse treatment and more insults. Women said they were threatened, humiliated, pushed and shoved, and beaten, albeit less severely than men, and otherwise ill-treated.
Human Rights Watch documented beatings at seven police precincts in Minsk, one in Gome and one in Grodno, as well as at the Okrestina Facility at the Grodno Prison. Detainees said that when they arrived, OMON officers continued to beat them, sometimes forcing them to walk through two lines of officers with batons, hitting or kicking and punching them on the head, back, chest, and abdomen.
All the male detainees and some of the female detainees said that before detainees were transferred to cells, they were forced to kneel or stand, with their tied hands behind their heads, or lie on the ground, hands tied tightly behind their backs, for several hours, and were beaten if they complained or shifted position.
Also, journalists detained during this period, among whom were citizens of Ukraine and the United States, reported beatings and ill-treatment.
“The sweeping brutality of the crackdown shows the lengths to which the Belarusian authorities will go to silence people, but tens of thousands of peaceful protesters continue to demand fair elections and justice for abuses. The United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) should urgently set in motion inquiries to ensure that evidence is collected that could contribute to accountability for grave human rights violations,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.