Siarhei Skrabets: ‘They tried to drive me mad…’ The former prisoner of conscience describes the inhuman conditions of Belarusian prisons
On 15 November Siarhei Skrabets was released from Vitsebsk-based penal-colony Vitsba-3 and the number of political prisoners in Belarus decreased by one. He spent 1,5 years behind bars. He was on hunger-strike for five times. Actually, during his imprisonment he either maintained hunger-strikes or recovered after them. He was at the brink of death several times. However, according to the former deputy, difficulties don’t humiliate, they temper instead. In his interview Siarhei Skrabets described the conditions in which he had to live during the imprisonment.
-- You spent your term in several prisons. Can you say more precisely, where and when you were kept?
-- I had to travel by prison carriage from Brest to Vitsebsk. In Brest prison I had 6 cellmates. The cell was rather small. One couldn’t make a step there, only sit or lie. There was a table, lavatory and two two-stored plank-beds. It was prohibited to lie at daytime. The electricity was turned off after 10 p.m. At night guards look in the peep-hole to see whether people lie. The light was burning throughout the night. However, it was considered a normal place. Two border guards and two foreigners were kept there together with me.
Prison is a closed space, that’s why corruption is even harder here. Supervisory prosecutor’s office, prison head and investigation make one chain. All system works for getting money from suspects and prisoners. It doesn’t matter whether you are under investigation or already sentenced to a term – you become a ‘cash cow’ as soon as you get there: prosecutor pulls you by the horns, the court – by the tail and the defence lawyer – by the dug… Each of them pulls in his own direction and receives what he wants to – money. The state earns good money on it. Your guilt hasn’t been proved yet, but you already have to pay…
In the case you pay and negotiate they count with you. The money that is transferred to prisoners by their relatives can be one-two weeks late. During this term it is used by the prison administration. I caught them on it many times.
-- What rights of prisoners are violated?
-- For instance, prisoners have the right to walk for 2 hours a day, but the maximal term of stay on the open air is 40 minutes. During transfers I was kept together with prisoners who were ill with tuberculosis and AIDS. Nowadays they are not kept in separate cells. There are many ill persons both in penal colonies and their ‘quarantines’. It is not a problem for the guards. Even during the time Kazulin and I spent at a medical department, there was a person ill with closed form of tuberculosis near us. It seems to me there weren’t people with such diseases in the cell. The prisoners don’t want to speak of it. No one wants to admit being ill. Nevertheless, I had to speak with such people and even drink tea with them. Walks take place in a yard that is 2 x 3 meters. In Brest there is much dust in such yards. However, it is quite good there compared to Minsk investigative isolator, where shit lies in such places. I wrote to the administration of investigative isolator #1 and asked them to clean the yards, because it gets into cells and can become a reason for diseases. No reaction followed. They treat people like cattle.
Shower is a plain mockery – 10 minutes once a week, without warm water, one shower per five persons. You can do whatever you want to wash yourself. Meanwhile, it is only pre-trial detention and the guilt is not proved yet.
-- What can you say about attitude of the personnel to prisoners?
-- What concerns me, the head of the prison quite politely asked me to stop the hunger-strike. But to press he stated that I didn’t hunger, whereas my temperature was 35 grades centigrade and blood pressure – 50 x 80. I almost died. In my letters to defence lawyer accused in my death A.Lukashenka and promised to revenge after death. I asked for my body to be cremated and the ashes be scattered above Minsk. This letter didn’t reach my lawyer, brother and had no publicity.
A trip from Brest prison to Minsk prison takes a week. I spent this time in a temporary jail in Baranavichy. The conditions there are completely inhuman: 100 persons in one cell. And all of them smoke, whereas I don’t. They have only one lavatory there. I was there for four days, but it was a very hard time. They violate there all rights – you aren’t allowed to work, you aren’t allowed anything… There are people, who spend there several months.
Then – Minsk. In Valadarski Street jail I was driven to madness. I lied for three days on boards together with fleas and rats. I was kept together with tramps. They treated me like an animal. People are treated like that after they get to the place of destination. There are no plank-beds, only wooden ‘stage’ on which people sleep.
-- Could you call a doctor?
-- Yes. You call a doctor. He comes once a week and says: ‘What’s up?’ Even for me, former deputy, reaching a doctor was the same as knocking on heaven’s door, leave alone other prisoners, who may not even ever see a doctor during all their terms. During the trial they wake you at 5 a.m., completely undress, make you stand on a concrete floor and transfer from one cell to another. The cold is terrible (it was – 30 degrees centigrade), the windows open, everybody smoking…
The prison in Valadarski Street has a ‘submarine’ – a place in the cellar of the old building. 40 people sitting in a cellar without windows… People are put there for writing agreement to immediately going to prison without waiting for cassation. It seems the instructions haven’t changed since 1937, but humiliation tempers me instead of humiliating. After the trial I was transferred to Vitsebsk.
I was transferred to Minsk two months after detention. I spent half a year in the new building of Valadarski jail. The conditions there are better than in Brest. First of all, one can walk around the cell there. Many of the prisoners who lied together with me in the prison hospital said that 16 persons are kept in the cells that normally house only 10 and 20 – in those that house 15 and it is so in all cells, especially old ones. People sleep in turn. I was kept in different cells, but most of them were for four persons. Sometimes they put there one or two more, but only for a short time. At night we could watch TV and walk in the cell. In any case, those who move to Minsk after Brest, Zhodzina or Mahiliou say that the conditions are more human here. When Kazulin moved there from Zhodzina he said he simply rested.
-- Are there any nutrition problems?
-- Prisoners receive expired foodstuffs. In prison one could consume sugar, but not in colony. The guards explain it by saying that otherwise prisoners would make moonshine. I think it is their job not to admit it. In fact, it wasn’t a great problem – one could get sugar for a pack of cigarettes. At present it is prohibited to pass to Aliaksandr Kazulin honey which he need for recovery after hunger-strike in the case he decides to stop it. Why don’t they allow passing him a TV set, though there are TV-sets in all colonies? Why nothing is let to him?
-- Did you feel any special attitude to you?
-- In general there wasn’t any, except for one case. When Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote that I was handcuffed to a heating radiator in Brest, they started treating me better. Officials from the department of punishment execution came and asked whether it was true. I answered that they had a habit of first driving people mad and then asking. The same is with hunger-strike: in case you make a public statement about your hunger-strike, doctors come and take analyses. Otherwise you can even die and no one will pay any interest. I personally faced with it – I hungered for 30 days in Vitsebsk jail and almost died, but no one came up to me…
-- You announced a hunger-strike on the day of your detention…
-- I was ready to it. On Saturday I returned from Moscow and was warned that on Sunday I will be arrested. I answered that I am not afraid of jail.
-- What plans do you have for the future?
-- I associate my own future with the future of my country and don’t separate myself from my native land. In the case Belarus would have future I would have it as well. Everything is simple for me – I struggle against the regime and will continue it. I will go to jail again, if necessary. Why should I feel well if the country is in deadlock?
-- You appear to be a happy man, though you could die several times. Do you want to revenge?
-- No. Revenge is against my principles. I don’t want to revenge to those who imprisoned me and go on the persecution. I think it would distract me from other important aims of my life.
-- What aims do you have?
-- I want to return the future to my country. More precisely – to remove from power the illegally governing president, widen the powers of the parliament and limit the institute of presidential power. Belarus doesn’t develop according to the laws accepted in the world. We stably track back nowadays. I think it is wrong. I want my children and grandchildren to have future in their country.