Belarus: Police Violence Continues

Beatings and torture, long an issue of concern, have become commonplace since the August 2020 uprising.

Belarus: Police Violence Continues

Beatings and torture, long an issue of concern, have become commonplace since the August 2020 uprising.

Beatings and torture, long an issue of concern, have become commonplace in Belarus since people first rose up to protest the elections in August 2020.
Beatings and torture, long an issue of concern, have become commonplace in Belarus since people first rose up to protest the elections in August 2020. © Andrew Keymaster/Unsplash
Tuesday, 22 February, 2022

Yuri (not his real name) was arrested in Minsk on March 27, 2021 as he walked past one of the popular demonstrations against the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. He said that he had been trying to avoid the protests, but police seized him anyway.  

When officers searched his backpack, they found an aerosol can and a laser pointer which they deemed to be dangerous items. Then the questioning – and the beating - began.

 “They wanted me to incriminate myself,” the 30-year-old said, recalling that his interrogators repeatedly insisted that he had been planning to kill law enforcement officers.

“I told them: ‘do what you want, I am not going to do that.’ They closed the window blinds and four of them beat me for three or four hours - what else is it if not torture?” he continued.

He recalled staggering through the police station’s corridors, disorientated from being repeatedly hit over the head.

“But no one cared,” he said.

Yuri was charged with offences including gross violation of public order and spent nearly two months in prison.  His cell mates advised him to admit to all the charges and warned him that he could be raped if he continued to resist.

Beatings during detention were a common practice, he added, “This is how the police get the necessary testimonies.”

Although Yuri was released in May 2021, the criminal case against him continues.

Human rights organisations say that beatings and torture during detention and interrogation have become commonplace since the Belarus uprising began in August 2020 following disputed presidential elections. The authorities have also been blamed for instances in which prisoners have died.

Tens of thousands of people have been detained, with over 1,000 convicted of political offences.

According to a report by the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture (ICIT), torture in Belarus in 2020-2021 was systemic and widespread.

Although mass protests have ceased, local activists continue to organise and police still make arrests. Detainees are pressurised to provide access to their smartphones and contacts or threatened with further arrest or torture to become informants.

Victoria Fedorova, an ICIT activist, said that those detained for political reasons received the worst punishment.

“More than a year and-a-half has passed since August 2020, and law enforcement forces have not been held accountable,” she continued. “This impunity has untied their hands and provoked legal anarchy. More torture and unlawful methods will be applied not only to people linked to politics, but to all other people as well.”

One of the most notorious prisons was the one located on Okrestina street in central Minsk, used for short periods of administrative detention.

Olga Zazulinskaya worked at a volunteer clinic set up nearby at the height of the protests to treat prisoners after they were released. She said that men would often emerge from detention beaten black and blue.

“It was scary. All the people who got out were beaten and had fractures, concussions, in a terrible psychological state. They came out with swollen legs; [the doctors] had to cut their trousers off.”

One woman, Julia Dubouskaya, last year shared details of her brother’s alleged torture on social media. He was later jailed for 18 years.  

“He tried to describe how, with his hands tied behind his back, he seemed to be lifted off the ground... He said that his hands were all swollen and bloody from the ties... For several days in the KGB pre-trial detention centre he could not move because of damaged ribs,” she wrote.

The Viasna Human Rights Centre reported that in 2020-2021, “The authorities failed to properly investigate about 5,000 appeals (including more than 100 from minors) and prosecute those responsible for torture and other acts of ill-treatment.”

The authorities deny any such abuses have taken place. Responding to claims of torture, a statement last August by the state oversight Investigative Committee of Belarus body said that “the use of physical force and special means… were proportionate and were used with the intention of causing the least harm”.

There have also been reports of deaths. On November 12, 2020, teacher Roman Bondarenko died in hospital after he was brought there from the police department with brain swelling. Human rights groups accused the authorities of covering up the 30-year-old’s murder.

Fedorova said that there had long been complaints about the physical abuse during detentions, even before the uprising of 2020.

“This is the most popular method [to get promoted] - to obtain testimony by using force,” she said.

Most recently, in a case unconnected with political activism, 27-year-old Dzmitry Uskhopau was pronounced dead in hospital just 90 minutes after police arrested him at a bus stop on New Year’s Eve 2021. The authorities denied any wrongdoing and alleged that Uskhopau died as a result of high levels of alcohol and drugs in his bloodstream.

Vasili Zavadski, now a human rights activist, worked for 25 years in the medical unit of the interior ministry’s correctional department and ran the unit for ten years.

He said that until 2010, the department’s data showed that about 100 people died in correctional facilities each year.

After 2010, these figures were no longer made available to senior staff.

“We could not obtain the data - we were told that it was for internal use only,” he said. “But I still have some sources in the system and I know that in recent years the number of deaths has increased significantly. When I used to work in the system, the number was decreasing, albeit slowly,” Zavadski said.

However, he said that torture was more widespread in administrative rather than criminal cases.

He identified one high profile case in which he believed a detainee had died as a result of beatings. Activist Vitold Oshurok was arrested after taking part in the summer 2020 demonstrations and sentenced to five years in prison. He died in May 2021 in a prison in Shklow in the eats of the country. Prison authorities initially said that the 31-year-old had died of heart failure.

“According to the videos that I saw, the torture led to the death of [this] person,” Zavadski said. “This is my opinion.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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