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Tortures continue in detention: the most notable cases in 2022

2022 2022-12-30T15:08:32+0300 2022-12-30T15:21:25+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Torture and detention in inhumane conditions have been an integral part of the political persecution in Belarus since August 2020. So far, not a single case has been brought against the security forces. Instead, courts impose large prison sentences on those tortured and beaten. Viasna human rights defenders keep documenting all cases of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment with the belief that the perpetrators will eventually be brought to justice. We recall the most notorious torture cases that leaked out in 2022.

Torture in Belarus. Illustration by Volha Prankevich
Torture in Belarus. Illustration by Volha Prankevich

"People with legs covered in bruises." How are Belarusians tortured?

Detained dissidents usually get beaten during arrest or on the premises of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (rus. GUBOPiK). Often, beaten people are put under administrative detention before being criminally charged, so that bruises could disappear within the detention period of up to 15 days, since a medical examination for injuries is carried out before admission to the pre-trial detention center. There have been cases when the Minsk jail administration refused to admit a prisoner due to severe bodily blows. This was the case of former investigating officer Mikita Starazhenka. According to a fellow inmate, he was kept in temporary detention (TDC) for only three days before an attempt to have him transferred to pre-trial detention center #1. He was not admitted there because of severe beatings. The security forces took Starazhenka to the hospital. After he recovered, another try was made to have him admitted to the jail, where he was awaiting trial.

Human rights defenders learn about the beatings of political prisoners from their statements in court, case files, former cellmates' accounts, families, and political prisoners themselves upon their release.

According to the detainees, at the moment, those arrested for "leaking information" are beaten up most frequently. Usually, they get beaten with a baton on their legs and buttocks. Tasers and suffocation with a bag are also used. This is accompanied by threats of more violence.

"In general, they like to beat up the IT workers and those who 'leak' information the most," noted a former Minsk TDC detainee.

"There were people with legs covered in bruises. That's the most common thing. But I was beaten on the head, so I had black eyes as well. I have very bad eyesight, but when I was admitted to the TDC, a staff officer refused to give me glasses, saying that my eyesight will improve in 15 days," said another former prisoner.

"They beat my mother in the corridor." Mother and son sentenced to 15 and 19 years in prison in the "Autukhovich case"

On 17 October, Hrodna Regional Court pronounced verdicts in the high-profile "Autukhovich case" — from 2.5 to 25 years of imprisonment. Mikalai Autukhovich, priest Siarhei Rezanovich, his wife Liubou Rezanovich, their son Pavel Rezanovich, retired Halina Dzerbysh, Baranavičy activist Uladzimir Hundar, activist Volha Mayorava, retired Iryna Melcher and her son Anton Melcher, Iryna Harachkina, Viktar Snehur, and Pavel Sava were convicted.

Only two of them pleaded guilty in full.

Testifying at the trial, Pavel Rezanovich, a former officer of the District Department of Enforcing Penalties in Brest, said that physical and psychological torture had been used against him to extort confession. Rezanovich even named the perpetrators: Brest KGB investigator Tsiareshyn and head of the investigation department of Hrodna KGB Varanetski. According to the political prisoner, Tsiareshin visited him with a ready-made four-page "script" that Pavel had to sign. As for Varanetski, he threatened the defendant with solitary confinement and a "max punishment". The judge asked Rezanovich how he, a man with a law degree, could sign something like that. He replied:

"The KGB officers were threatening to arrest my wife, and at the same time, I could hear my mother beaten and screaming in the corridor. Under such conditions, one can sign more than that."

A former inmate of Brest pre-trial detention center #7 confirmed to human rights defenders that when Pavel's mother Liubou was convoyed along the corridor, her screams could be heard throughout the facility. Each time Pavel reacted very emotionally: he also shouted and banged on the door, which was then used as a pretext to put him in segregation.

Judge Maksim Filatau sentenced Pavel Rezanovich to 19 years in prison and his mother Liubou to 15 years of imprisonment.

"Interrogation with guns in the woods." Former political prisoner Aliaksei Kavaleuski tried to flee the country after the trial, but became a defendant in the "rail partisans case"

Torture of Aliaksei Kavaleuski. Illustration by Volha Prankevich
Torture of Aliaksei Kavaleuski. Illustration by Volha Prankevich

Aliaksei Kavaleuski, a 33-year-old programmer from Minsk, was detained last December for participating in protests in August 2020. After four months in custody, he was sentenced to two years of restricted freedom and released before assignment to an open-type correctional facility. Aliaksei decided to leave the country immediately: he got in touch with people who promised to help him go to Lithuania, but it ended with another detention. Aliaksei became the target of a KGB special operation related to the case of the Babrujsk "rail partisans" and Alesia Bunevich. For his failed attempt to escape from Belarus, Aliaksei had to endure beatings, transportation in a car trunk, interrogation in the woods, and detention centers in Hrodna and Mahilou. Here is his account:

"For some reason, the person who was helping me decided to organize a group so that I would not cross the border alone. We had to do it in threes. I got into a car with my 'buddies'. As soon as we got out of Hrodna, we were brutally detained by the KGB. The car was stopped by the traffic police, and hardly did the driver put the handbrake on, the door was already opened from the outside, I got hit in the jaw, and the car was surrounded by people pointing guns at us. The blows were countless. The driver and I were put in the trunk and brought to the forest, where they beat and tased us. In the woods, they interrogated us with pointed guns. The officers were in plain clothes.

"As it turned out, there were 'rail partisans' from Babrujsk in my group who were supposed to cross the border. They had been detained long before, and our arrest was staged. My 'buddies' were the KGB agents. I realized this at the moment of arrest. When they detained us, they were holding my arms. That's my 'accomplices' — they hold me when I'm being beaten! It all was so stupid, idiotic, and unprofessional. Then they played a scene with someone's knees being shot. They shouted that we were going to get shot too. I almost fainted during those beatings. That whole special operation was designed to catch a man who helped us cross the border. Then they brought Alesya Bunevich for interrogation in the forest."

"I thought I just wasn't going to make it." The first defendant in the "Black Book of Belarus case" sentenced to 11 years in prison

On 8 February, Minsk City Court pronounced the verdict on two political prisoners of Beltelecom ex-employees Aliaksei Bychkouski and Artsiom Parkhamovich. Judge Sviatlana Bandarenka sentenced them under eight articles of the Criminal Code to 11 years of imprisonment each for "leaking data" to the Telegram channel "Black Book of Belarus" (BBB). The trial was held behind closed doors.

According to Volha Vysotskaya, one of the administrators of the above Telegram channel, who is now being tried in absentia, Artsiom Parkhamovich was the first person to be detained for cooperation with BBB after GUBOPiK officer Artur Haiko who infiltrated the BBB team leaked the data of those who provided it with personal details of regime supporters. On 26 October, the Ministry of Internal Affairs posted a video of Parkhamovich where he talked about his cooperation with BBB and had visible abrasions on his nose and eyebrows. On the same day, Aliaksei Bychkouski was detained, although they didn't know each other.

Bychkovski's wife told Nasha Niva that her husband was severely beaten after his arrest:

"My husband was beaten senseless during the arrest. I spoke with those who saw him after the arrest, my husband was in a terrible condition, according to them.

"I don't even want to say what they did to him — it was so humiliating. But I was told he was tased unconscious...

"I don't know where he was beaten. But I talked to my husband's colleagues, and they told me that the law enforcers put him in a minivan, and the car was parked right outside the Beltelecom premises for quite a long time. Then they took him to the Investigative Committee. The husband himself wrote in one of his letters about the way there: 'I thought I just wasn't going to make it.'"

"Vysotski shouted: 'I'll fucking kill you if you delete anything.' Artist Dzmitry Padrez sentenced to 7 years in prison

On 15 March 2022, Minsk City Court passed another verdict in the "Black Book of Belarus case" against a political prisoner, street artist, and IT specialist Dzmitry Padrez — seven years of imprisonment. Dzmitry was arrested on July 15 last year when law enforcers broke into his home through the window. It was only this spring that Viasna human rights activists learned about the beatings and humiliation of the political prisoner by GUBOPiK officers during his detention. According to his ex-cellmate, SWAT officers on ropes descended from the roof to the artist's apartment. From inside they let GUBOPiK officers in, among whom were Valer Vysotski, Astashko, and Volkau.

"They ran into the bathroom, grabbed Dzmitry, and put him on the floor in the living-room. His hands were handcuffed. Officer Vysotski took a hand cast from the shelf, put a condom on it, and said, 'Let's put it in the anus.' But he put the plaster hand next to Dzmitry's head. A SWAT officer kicked him in the thighs, and the other hit him in the face with his glove. They wanted the passwords, and Dzmitry gave them.

They found a Russian-Polish phrasebook in the home library. Officer Astashko hit Dzmitry in the face with the phrasebook and asked, 'Aren't you a fucking patriot?'

When they went through the laptop, Vysotski yelled: 'I'll fucking kill you if you delete anything.'

They took him to GUBOPiK, and when they drove up, Vysotski said: 'Welcome to the Gestapo,' said Dzmitry's former cellmate.

"He was covered in bruises from buttocks to heels." Ex-investigator Starazhenka sentenced to seven years in prison

Torture of Mikita Starazhenka. Illustration by Volha Prankevich
Torture of Mikita Starazhenka. Illustration by Volha Prankevich

On 2 December, Minsk City Court announced the verdict for former investigation officer Mikita Starazhenka — seven years of imprisonment. According to his ex-cellmate, it was Starazhenka who was appointed in 2020 to investigate the case against a 16-year-old teen beaten by law enforcement officers (most probably, that was Tsimur Mitskievich). Mikita resigned in protest. He was accused of "leaking" personal details of law enforcement officers to protest social media.

Mikita was brutally detained on 1 February 2022 in a shopping center in Minsk. In the "repentance" video, he looked very frightened and his face showed injuries. He was indeed beaten after arrest — this was confirmed to Viasna by his cellmate.

"When Mikita entered the cell, he looked scared, because he was threatened to be put in a cell with 'punks' and would be beaten there. They also promised to take him to crime lords because he used to work as an investigator. When we saw how badly beaten he was, we understood that he wasn't a snitch. We knew how one feels at such moments, so we were careful with him. They threatened him with a 12-year sentence.

"He was blue all the way from buttocks to heels. His legs were dark purple. There were abrasions on his face and head, and handcuff marks on the wrists. Mikita said that they kicked and beat him with truncheons, wrapped a rag around his head, put a trash can over his head, and hit through the can so there would be no trace left. But he still had a cut on his nose and a big abrasion near his ear. He got hit on the nose all right because it was red. He had swollen lips and an abrasion on his chin."

"When he came to the TDC, his legs were purple." Former A1 spokesman Mikalai Bredzeleu sentenced to 4 years in prison

On 24 October, Minsk City Court sentenced Mikalai Bredzeleu, a 35-year-old political prisoner and head of the public relations department of A1 company, to four years of imprisonment. He was accused of "financing the activities of an extremist formation" (Criminal Code Article 361-2) for allegedly promoting A1 on blogger Anton Matolka's Telegram channel from August to December 2020, even though the channel was recognized as an "extremist formation" as late as on 17 March 2022. After Mikalai was detained in December 2021 it became known that law enforcement officers had beaten him, but no details were available. Mikalai's TDC cellmate recently told Viasna about the situation Bredzeleu had to go through.

Mikalai Bredzeleu and his friend Aliaksei were detained on 10 December 2021 by GUBOPiK officers. His former cellmate said that Mikalai was all beaten up when brought to the TDC:

"He came to the TDC with legs purple with bruises, they beat him badly. Judging by his condition, he was brutally arrested. We — 15-20 people — slept on the floor and only wore underpants because the heating was at maximum. That's why everyone saw Mikalai's bruises. They were black and purple all over his thighs, on his back and sides, too. I'll never forget it."

Mikalai's ex-cellmate recalls that he did not share the details of his detention. The cellmate can't even suggest in what way and with what weapon one had to be beaten to produce such bruises:

"If you use a baton, you have to hit it multiple times to get that kind of solid color fill."

According to Aleksei's cellmate who spoke with Nasha Niva, Aleksei was also severely beaten:

"Mikalai Bredzeleu and his lawyer friend Alexei, as far as I know, were brutally detained at the same time. They were beaten, and the appliances they had at home were smashed. The lawyer was livid: his legs and lower back were bruised, and he had a black eye."

As it was immediately reported in the pro-regime Telegram channels, where a "repentant" video of Bredzeleu was also published, Mikalai had been allegedly passing information related to his professional activities (A1 client data) to third parties since July 2020, but later the company stated that Bredzeleu had no access to such data.

"He was taken for questioning from the TDC. When he came back, he said that the investigators would admit that they had nothing on him and that he was 'set up.' He always claimed that he didn't even have access to the information that he was suspected of leaking."

Violence and torture were used. Dzmitry Sasnouski sentenced to 20 years in prison in the "OGSB case"

On 5 December, Minsk Regional Court passed a sentence in the "case of the Civil Self-Defense Units of Belarus" involving five people: Dzmitry Sasnouski, Aliaksei Hlotau, Natallia Matsveyeva, Vadzim Hulevich, and Kiryl Ashurak. In total, they were convicted under ten articles of the Criminal Code, including terrorism, for attempting to undermine the communication hub of the Russian Navy in Vilejka, attempted assassination of the propagandist Ryhor Azaronak, and attempted destruction of logging equipment in a forestry station.

Dzmitry Sasnouski is the only defendant who did not plead guilty to an act of terrorism against regime advocate Azaronak, claiming that "it was a provocation by law enforcement."

"My conscience is clear: I didn't do anything, I don't fit the role of a terrorist," Dzmitry said.

In court, he said that after he was detained near Azaronak's house, he "was subjected to violence and torture aimed at extorting a self-incriminating confession.

Sasnouski's allegations of torture were not taken into account by the court. Judge Siarhei Epikhau sentenced him to 20 years of imprisonment.

A bag on the head and fifty blows. Anatol Latushka sentenced to 6 years in prison

Torture of Anatol Latushka. Illustration by Volha Prankevich
Torture of Anatol Latushka. Illustration by Volha Prankevich

On 20 September, Minsk Centralny District Court sentenced political prisoner Anatol Latushka, a politician Pavel Latushka's cousin, to six years in prison and a fine of $3,560. During the trial the details of the use of physical force against him in the Centralny District Police Department became known. In a pre-trial interrogation, Latushka said:

"At about 1 a.m. on 31 January, I was detained near my home and taken to the Centralny District Police Department. I was brought to an office on the fourth floor, and the officers there started talking to me. An officer put a plastic bag on my head twice, and they explained that they wanted to get some information from me that I myself did not know. One of the officers took a truncheon in his hands and started threatening to..." [the judge omitted a part of the text].

"Something about hitting, at least 50 blows...," the judge continued.

"They wanted to get information about some Telegram channels. Because of the physical pressure, I agreed to give the testimony they demanded. However, I did not commit the above-mentioned crimes. When I agreed to testify, the police officers stopped using physical force against me. Then I was brought to the front office, and the following day an investigator questioned me. No one used physical force against me ever since. I would like to specify that the people who introduced themselves as police officers left the office before the others started harassing me," Latushka said in his explanation.

At the trial, the political prisoner confirmed these facts.

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