‘He can crawl to the hospital’ — one man’s story of police brutality in Belarus
On the evening of Tuesday 11 August, 120 people were crammed into a small prison yard in Minsk. All were handcuffed from behind, forced to kneel and stare at the ground.
Among them prowled their captors from the Belarusian riot police squad OMON, who beat the prisoners seemingly at random.
“How do you like your rallies now?” one asked tauntingly, his face hidden behind a black mask.
It was two days after Alexander Lukashenko was declared to have won Belarus’s presidential election with 80% of the vote. Hordes of opposition poured onto the streets to protest against the result. The police and army responded with brutal violence.
Igor was one of those detained on that Tuesday night and taken to the notorious Okrestina prison.
Euronews is concealing the 30-year-old’s true identity because he fears retaliation from the authorities for telling his story.
He recounted how one prisoner was lying almost motionless on the ground of the yard, bleeding heavily from the face. A prison doctor examining him declared he would not survive if he was not taken to hospital immediately.
“He can crawl there,” an OMON officer responded. The man was left where he was as other prisoners were made to walk over him.
Igor says he was arrested that Tuesday night when he was walking around Minsk with his girlfriend.
He explained how an OMON police bus stopped beside him and an officer dressed in riot gear pointed at him with a shotgun, forcing Igor to his knees.
When he insisted he was on a walk and not protesting, one officer struck him. His girlfriend was told to go away.
“They said that if you move, we will shoot your heels off,” Igor told Euronews in Minsk after his release.
He is still bruised from the beatings he received in prison and has marks from the bindings on his wrists, but his condition has improved since he was let go.
“They tied me up and threw me into the bus. If I or others moved, we got beaten with sticks.”
At the prison, they were forced to walk handcuffed through two lines of OMON officers, who struck them as they passed. One protester screamed “long live Belarus”, a popular opposition chant, and was swiftly bundled away.
Electrocuted between the shoulders
“When someone fell to the ground, they would beat them harder and harder until they would get up again,” Igor said.
“It was horrible. They would hit him everywhere. On his legs, his head, and his back, while we were forced to continue walking over them.”
Inside, some prisoners were stripped naked and electrocuted between their shoulder blades while facing the wall. Others, like Igor, kept their clothes but still had current applied to their legs, where they lost all feeling.
As prisoners bled heavily, the officers rifled through their belongings and examined their phones.
For anyone with video footage of the protests, the punishment was immediate: they were pulled from of the room, their screams fading as they were dragged further away.
“They told us that we could die right here, that we could be handicapped for life,” Igor recounted.
He could not understand why he was there, but was too afraid to ask because the OMON officers would only respond with more beatings.
“’Here is your f*cking freedom, here are your f*cking changes,’ is all they would say. They told us that we could die right here, that we could be handicapped for life.”
Testimonies like Igor’s are not uncommon in Belarus, where stories of overcrowded cells, torture and limited food and hygiene have circulated widely since many prisoners were released at the end of last week.
One hospital doctor, Dina, recounted the injuries she had seen in intensive care since the night of the election.
“Some of them had lacerations, most likely from rubber bullets,” she told Euronews.
“One has a serious eye injury, and one has an amputated foot. One guy was diabetic, and his insulin pump was taken away from him.
“Everyone tells practically the same [story]. In general, the picture is terrible, there is too much moral and physical abuse.
“We have a young man with a ruptured rectum, but I still haven’t had the courage to talk to him.”
Torture 'sanctioned at highest level'
Amnesty International said last week that the abundance of torture reports across the country made it “highly probable that the approach has been sanctioned at the highest level”.
More than 1,500 people were arrested on the Tuesday night Igor was detained.
One of his fellow inmates was still wearing the slippers he was wearing when officers picked him up. Another was dragged out of a petrol station toilet.
For 24 hours the detainees had little water and no access to a toilet, Igor said. One man was beaten in front of everyone because he urinated in a corner of the yard.
The OMON officers then left the yard and the treatment of detainees improved. They were finally allowed to use a toilet, where they could drink water from the tap.
Igor said his yard received better treatment because they were not considered protesters: “We could hear screams from other prison yards. It was all so random. It was such different people who were detained.”
Volunteers at a camp outside Okrestina prison — which offers food, water and medical help to newly-released prisoners — told Euronews they also heard the screaming.
Igor was released on Sunday, four full days following his arrest. He said he was questioned by members of the KGB secret service and forced to sign a document vowing not to protest again. He insists he had not been demonstrating and was arbitrarily arrested.
The number of people still held in Belarus’s prisons is not known. There have also been many reports of missing people, but no official numbers. Igor has heard the number is 81.
“Many of the 81 missing are likely dead,” Igor said.
“One KGB officer had a walkie-talkie, and I remember that he got a message that some prisoners were dead on their way to the detention centre. So, I am sure that not all made it.”