Torture in Belarus
In the center of Europe, crimes against humanity are committed with impunity.
I now often see war in my dreams. Tight formations of marching riot police bang shields and cut like knives into a white-red-and-white river of protesters in the streets of Minsk, which was once my home. In these dreams I usually stand aside, frozen. I watch as bodies fall under metal batons, military boots stomping them into the ground. I cower from a black figure who turns the polished helmet of his head towards me, scared to see his eyes behind the visor.
What came first? Did the war that the maniacal dictator launched against its people spill into my dreams, or did I invoke it by my obsessive dreams? The arrest of my good, good friend at the end of November feels like a continuation of the nightmare.
Since Aug. 9, when the long-time Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko declared his sixth victory — in elections that most Belarusians, and some EU and US officials believe to be fraudulent — the protests have been rolling like waves. Hundreds of thousands of people march through the streets of big cities and small towns, demanding Lukashenko to step down and transfer power to the exiled Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, a 38-year-old Belarusian who ran for office instead of her jailed blogger-husband Sergey Tsikhanovsky, and has subsequently become the national leader and for many — President-elect of Belarus.
This is not the first time Belarusians have protested. It has become a ritual, with Lukashenko claiming victory as ‘his’ citizens take to the streets. But never before has the crackdown been as unlawful and as violent. Since Aug. 9, according to the Belarusian Human Rights Center “Vyasna”, more than 25,000 Belarusians have been detained, dozens remain missing, and at least 6 have been confirmed dead. Most of the brutal detentions happened within 72 hours after the results of the election were announced.
Thousands of those detained were sent to the Okrestino jail, nicknamed Auschwitz by some survivors. Comparing conditions in a Belarusian jail to that of a concentration camp is a chilling leap. Nothing could compare to the war that killed a third of Belarusians and turned the streets of Minsk into burnt ruins littered with gallows. Nothing could be worse than that war, I felt, until the first detainees were released from Okrestino and started to give their accounts: beatings, rape, starvation, sleep deprivation, lack of hygiene, humiliation, refusal to provide medical help, detention without cause.
On Sept. 1, the UN human rights experts called on to Belarusian authorities to stop torturing prisoners after it received reports of at least 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of protesters and bystanders after the election day. Yet despite the evidence, not a single criminal case has been opened against the police and security guards. Instead, three hundred policemen have received awards for outstanding service.
Like many Belarusians living abroad, I have rewound my clock back to Minsk time. I am getting my news from Telegram channels that alert me to every atrocity or small victory in my home country, which has again invaded my heart, as if I never left. I have been staring at mutilated, bruised, broken bodies for almost four months now. The stories of these victims, similar in their incomprehensible brutality, have blurred. But the voices, the faces, and the expression in their eyes lingers.
Ivan, journalist and fixer, 41
Ivan was arrested on Aug. 11, in downtown Minsk. He was not returning from a protest, neither was he working. (In the days after the election, one could be arrested for merely being in the wrong place at a wrong time.) Ivan and his colleague were asked to step out of their car and empty their pockets. They were thrown on the floor of a prisoner transport vehicle and beaten with boots and batons by members of OMON, the riot police. When the truck was filled with other detainees, they were moved to a precinct gym, where they spent the next 24 hours on their knees, heads to the floor. If they moved, they were beaten, if they asked for mercy, they were beaten.
Ivan recalls two type of policemen guarding them, the OMON and regular police. Everyone who has lived in Belarus long enough knows what to expect from OMON — they are trained to hurt. He found the attitude of the regular police shocking: “They were officers, with degrees, and families. And they still treated us like animals,” he said. “They beat and humiliated us.”
Photos leaked to the media from a gym like the one in which Ivan was held show rows of kneeling men. There are blood splatters on the floor and the walls. The following night, the men were transferred to the Okrestino jail. Here, 147 men jammed into the roofless cement sack. They spent the night hugging each others’ backs, trying to stay warm. Before he was released, Ivan was beaten again.
Miron was walking from his grandmother’s house alongside his mother and a few friends when a van without a numbered plate stopped beside them. A group of armed men in balaclavas sprang out of it, and Miron and his girlfriend started running. They didn’t get far. The teenager was brutally subdued and transferred to the police truck. Krystina, his mother, repeatedly shouted that her son was only 16 and she had his documents, but she was ignored. Before being transferred to a prisoner transport vehicle, Miron says he and a group of other detainees were pushed inside the circle of the riot policemen and beaten.
Miron was thrown on the floor of the truck, as other bodies piled on top of him. He was brought to a gym, where he spent some six hours — according to the Belarusian law, underage children cannot be detained for longer than three. Miron tried to whisper to other men, hoping to learn their names and circumstances. One was arrested for having a beard and tattoos: the police called him an anarchist. Miron’s beatings did not end until his release. “I prayed, I tried to make my mind clear and remove fear, which was obviously there,” said the teenager. “Then fear disappeared. I just felt tired, extremely tired. Your emotions just dry out.”
At the end of that sixth hour, Miron was handed a document that specified his wrongdoings and placed him at the wrong location, at the wrong time. He refused to sign it, but was eventually released. The worst was yet to come: when he finally got out, he couldn’t find his parents. The next three days were the scariest of his life.
While waiting outside of the detention center for their son’s release, Andrey Vitushka, a renowned pediatric ICU doctor, and his wife Krystina were arrested alongside a handful of other parents. No reason was provided. The men and women were immediately separated. As they were brought to Okrestino, men were steered towards the building as OMON officers showered them with blows and insults. They were stripped and put on their knees, heads to the floor, along the walls. Women were rushed past them, horrified as they recognized their loved ones. Women were stripped, too, as male policemen recorded it on video. Women were ordered to take all their jewelry off and put it in a trash bag. It was a robbery, plain and simple, Krystina said.
Krystina was one of about 50 prisoners held in a four-person cell. It was unbearably hot, and women had to strip to their underwear. Female hygiene products were confiscated, so they had to tear their T-shirts to use as menstrual pads. For over 24 hours, they were denied food or water, after that, food was sporadic; For Krystina, who is diabetic, the irregular diet and no access to insulin were life-threatening. She only received one dose of insulin that first day.
Meanwhile, in the men’s group, Andrey said his group of about 100 prisoners was only given six bottles of water. At his darkest moments, he said, he thought of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in ‘The Gulag Archipelago’: “When you get into the system, It’s better to decide that your life is over, because it’s very possible that it is,” Andrey paraphrased the dissident author. “At some point it felt like they could do all they wanted.”
Despite outcry from the medical community on the couple’s behalf, Krystina was released after three nights, and Andrey after four. Only then was the family reunited.
Nastya, ER doctor, 29
Nastya, a young ER doctor, volunteered during mass protests right after the election, providing medical help to the injured, alongside two nurses. They had clearly marked vests, and were using one of their personal vehicles as an ambulette. On Aug.11, their car was stopped by OMON near Nastya’s home. A policeman put a gun to her head and said he would shoot her if she screamed. Nastya was brought to Okrestino, where she was held in the same cell as Krystina Vitushka, and accused of participating in unsanctioned protests.
As Nastya recalls, several women in the cell were badly injured: one had a broken leg, another was concussed. Nastya implored the guards to call for medical help, to no avail. “They said it all the time: you are not people, you are animals,” she said. “This is war, and you are the enemies.”
The screams of men being tortured were harrowing. “It was not like people screaming. It sounded like animals screaming, all night long,” she said. “They were beaten all the time, all night long.” When Nastya was finally released on Aug.14, she went straight to work. Her newest patients were some she had been detained with, their bodies turned into purple pulp. Some, both men and women, had been raped.
The meager international response to this political and humanitarian crisis — in a country of some 9.4 million at the crossroads of the European Union and Russia — is shameful, and yet another reminder of the ineptitude and inefficacy of international human rights institutions.
International action on human rights violations is historically cumbersome, yet there has been some recent movement. In mid-September, 17 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) invoked The Moscow Mechanism, an international mission aimed at probing the situation in Belarus for human rights violations. (It’s unlikely that Belarus will allow investigators access.) A day later, on Sept. 18, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution instructing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to enhance scrutiny of the situation in Belarus. There has yet to be any movement on this front.
In the meantime, Belarusian authorities and the law-enforcement continue to perpetrate crimes against humanity: citizens continue to be unlawfully detained, disappeared, tortured, raped, maimed and murdered. Roman Bondarenko, 31, became the latest victim of the state-sponsored terrorism. On November 11, he went outside to check on the brewing argument between his neighbors and men in balaclavas who were cutting off the white-red-white ribbons adorning the yard. He was knocked off his feet, detained and beat to death inside a police precinct. His last telegram message was “I am on my way.” If Lukashenko’s regime remains in power, which is not unfathomable, his lost as well as endless violated lives will never be redeemed.
There is, however, a way to get justice for the victims. The International Criminal Court can independently initiate the investigation into crimes against humanity in Belarus if the UN Security Council makes the referral and passes the resolution on the situation in the country. This is not unprecedented, it has happened before, though only twice. In 2005, the UN Security Council referred to the ICC the situation in Darfur, and in 2011 the situation in Libya.
It is critical that the mechanism is set in motion, and quickly. The name of the main perpetrator is well-known. Belarusians will help you find the rest.