KYIV — People detained across Belarus this week say they were tortured physically and psychologically by the police forces loyal to the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko while in custody.
More than 6,000 people have been detained during protests that have rocked Belarus since the presidential election widely rejected as fraudulent last Sunday. On Thursday, many of them came staggering out of detention centers, and they brought with them horrific accounts of their experiences.
In interviews with independent Belarusian media and BuzzFeed News, many of those detained recalled being refused water and food and forced to endure stress positions with their hands tied behind their backs for several hours. They said police had locked them up with as many as 60 people in jail cells meant for 10 people or less. Some said police put guns to their heads and threatened to blow them up with grenades, the independent Belarusian news site Tut.by reported. And they described walking over weeping detainees lying facedown on floors soaked with blood, and hearing the spine-tingling howls of others being kicked, punched, twisted, and clobbered by police with batons.
Audio recorded by Nasha Niva, an independent news outlet, and shared by Belarusian journalist Franak Viacorka captured those disturbing sounds from outside one detention center.
Upon being freed, some of those who were detained lifted up their shirts or rolled their pant legs up to show media what were melon-sized bruises on their bodies. In a photograph seen by BuzzFeed News, one man had the imprints of a police truncheon on his back in the shape of a cross. It was unclear whether that was intentional, but some said there had been a perverse religious element involved in what many said was torture: Police had forced many to recite the “Our Father” prayer, beg God for forgiveness for participating in the protests, and vow never to do so again, Russian News outlet Znak reported.
Miron Vitushka, a 16-year-old Minsk student who studies history and plays in a psychedelic rock band, described being detained on Monday evening while he was crossing the street with his mother and some friends in the Belarusian capital. Speaking to BuzzFeed News by phone, he said he was not even protesting at the time.
Vitushka said police officers in unmarked vans jumped out, beat him, handcuffed him, and threw him into the van before speeding off. He said he was forced facedown onto the floor of the vehicle. As police rounded up others, they threw them on top of Vitushka.
Vitushka said he was moved to a police station and later a school gymnasium, where about 100 men were kept tied with their hands behind their backs and faces flat on the floor. Officers beat the men, who howled and pleaded for the abuse to stop, he said.
“The police said if they were given an order to kill us, they would kill us all without any hesitation,” Vitushka told BuzzFeed News. “They were shouting, ‘Oh yeah, do you need your democracy now?’”
“They were trying to scare people so they wouldn’t take part in any protests,” he added.
Vitushka said his parents eventually figured out where he was being held and came to the makeshift detention center to demand his release, along with dozens of others asking the same for their family members. But instead of freeing those detained, police beat and arrested the group, including his parents. And so the family of three endured what Vitushka described as “three days of hell.”
Vitushka was released on Tuesday, his mother was released on Wednesday, and his father was released on Thursday. The family is currently meeting with lawyers to discuss the possibility of bringing a suit against the state.
Several other Belarusians described similarly horrendous experiences in detention. One young woman who was detained while peacefully demonstrating on Wednesday and was released Thursday from the notorious Okrestina detention center on the outskirts of Minsk recounted her ordeal through tears to the Tut.by news site.
In a video, she said 10 riot police officers pummeled her with batons and their fists, forced her against a wall, pulled down her pants, and threatened to gang rape and kill her.
“They told me, ‘We’ll fuck you so hard, your own mother won’t recognize you,’” she recalled a police officer telling her.
At least one man has died in custody, Belarusian authorities said on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the country’s interior minister, Yuri Karayev, said he took responsibility for “random people” getting caught up in the protests and injured. But he expressed no regret for the alleged police abuse.
Reached by phone, an Interior Ministry official declined to comment on the reported abuses by police.
Vitushka called it an empty apology and claimed Karayev was merely trying to quell the large-scale demonstrations that have engulfed the country and threatened the 26-year rule of Lukashenko.
The demonstrations erupted following Sunday’s election, which culminated in the 65-year-old incumbent president claiming a sixth election victory despite widespread reports of vote-rigging. His challenger, 37-year-old former English teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, declared victory for herself, citing reports from dozens of precincts that showed she had won somewhere between 60% and 70% of votes at each.
Under pressure from Lukashenko’s government and fearful of arrest, she fled to Lithuania on Tuesday. Her husband, a popular political vlogger who was barred from running in the election, has been in state custody since May.
On Friday, Tikhanovskaya published a video in which she said Belarusians no longer want to live under the Lukashenko regime. “The majority do not believe in his victory,” she said.
She also called on authorities to stop the “bloody slaughter” of protesters and agree to a dialogue.
“I ask the mayors of all cities to organize peaceful mass assemblies in every city on Aug. 15 and 16,” she added.
Later in another statement, she called for the “creation of a coordinating council to ensure the transfer of power” in the country.
Meanwhile, workers at state and private enterprises across Belarus walked off the job for a second straight day to protest police violence and demand the release of all those detained. They also called for Lukashenko to leave office, with a sign at one factory saying “we didn’t elect him.”
Lukashenko has said little since the election and the outbreak of protests against him and his regime. But on Friday, in comments carried by state media during a meeting to discuss the economy, he appeared defiant. Suggesting he was not ready to step down, he said, “I am still alive and not abroad.”