Ales Bialiatski on the death of political prisoner Vitold Ashurak
It is sad to see someone die when they are free, and it is unbearably sad when it happens in prison, when a person is all alone, and no one can offer their support or say goodbye in the last minutes of the person’s life.
The tragic death of opposition activist and political prisoner Vitold Ashurak leaves many questions to which we do not have any answers. After several months in detention and then a closed trial, Vitold was sentenced to five years in prison. His brother said that in the Hrodna pre-trial prison, where the activist was held before the trial, Vitold’s “physical condition” was “normal” and his mood “cheerful.”
In April, Ashurak was transferred to a prison in Škloŭ. We know very well the attitude of the prison authorities to political prisoners held in Belarusian prisons. There they started “breaking” him. In just four weeks, according to the Investigative Committee, Vitold was penalized 12 times for allegedly breaking prison rules.
I know too well from my own experience for what these penalties are awarded: for an unbuttoned shirt, for not saying hello to the prison staff, for wearing shoes of “forbidden design”, for sitting on your bed, for anything at all. Being a “malicious offender”, I was reprimanded once a month. Just to keep me on the alert. Vitold was literally showered with penalties. One of the functions of the penitentiary system is destroying the prisoner’s human dignity. To show that you are nothing, a disenfranchised creature, and that they can do anything to you.
Yellow patches mean special attention
Yellow name tags are worn by prisoners “prone to extremism.” Today, all popular political articles mean a yellow patch: handcuffs during transportation and convoying, additional checks in the cell and in the labor area, bullying and hostility from the prison administration. Being part of the Interior Ministry, the Department of Corrections would never forgive using violence against a police officer, of which Vitold Ashurak was accused. New prisoners are humbled through penalties, deprivation of visits, food parcels and punishment cells.
Vitold wrote in one of his letters that political prisoners were forced to wear yellow name tags on their clothes. The news went viral. This could be the real reason why he was put in a punishment cell.
And so, in just two weeks (there were about two more weeks in quarantine), Vitold, who had not previously complained about his health, lost conscience and collapsed.
What brought him to this state? Was he beaten? Was he deprived of sleep? Was he morally pressured? Was it cold in there? Was he starving? We do not have the answers to these questions.
Further, according to the Investigative Committee, “according to the prison staff, the convict broke his head, [but] did not complain about his health and refused to be treated and hospitalized.”
I do not believe that the prisoner would not have exchanged the punishment cell for a bed in the prison hospital. Most likely, no one offered him anything. At the very least, Vitold Ashurak was denied necessary medical care.
There is no more closed system in Belarus than the Department of Corrections. And the prison administration will now do everything to hide the truth about the death of political prisoner Vitold Ashurak.
Can we hope that the Investigative Committee will conduct an objective investigation and find out the truth? The same committee that conducted a “successful” investigation against Vitold Ashurak and helped him end up in prison, the one that has not opened a single criminal case after hundreds complained of torture after the August 2020 election. I strongly doubt it. We will know the truth later.
human rights activist, essayist, literary critic, former political prisoner