Post-referendum protest detainee: “I saw desperation and courage in people who took to the streets that day”
Vital [name changed for security reasons] served three short arrests in two years, including a neighborhood march in 2020, protests related to the national referendum in February 2022, and before Freedom Day in March last year. Wary of criminal prosecution, Vital had to flee the country.
The young man told Viasna how the detention conditions at the temporary detention center (TDC) and the attitude of the staff changed during this time and touched upon the grounds for the detention of people he met during his arrest.
Vital was arrested for the first time in November 2020, although he participated in almost every protest march and managed to stay off the detention list until then. On that day, the first neighborhood march took place, where the man was captured.
“They chased me as I was running away,” Vital recalls. “To stop me, they beat me on the head with a truncheon so that I hit the dirt at full speed. I blacked out for a couple of seconds. My glasses crashed – while I was trying to find them a man in green uniform kept yelling at me. I badly grazed my knee – they only let me wash it with hydrogen peroxide I had on me at the police station. We drove around the city in a van for two hours, and then they brought us to the Kastryčnicki police department. They didn’t beat us, but made jokes like ‘We are going to arrange a “masquerade” for you on the third floor.’ The investigator tried hard to drag me into an argument and asked why we were protesting and what we were going to do next, that is ‘after regime changes.’”
At the station, the detainees were allowed to receive care packages their relatives had brought in the meantime, but they could only take clothes they immediately put on. After that, everyone was taken to the TDC.
“The nurse there said that my smashed head and knee would be fine,” Vital smiles. “In the first cell, there were eight of us on five bunks. One of the guards even advised us to put our mattresses on the floor and sleep in ‘piles’. It was warm, but the food was not very good. The window wouldn’t open, we only had cold water from the tap, and we quickly ran out of toilet paper. While we were waiting for a new roll, we had to use a book for that purpose.”
Two days later Vital was sentenced to 15 days of detention over Skype. He had to wait 40 minutes for the trial in a special room, and the officers later accused him of “uninstalling Skype” on their laptop, even though they could see on cameras that he hadn't touched it. They joked that he would have been sentenced to 13 days of detention if he hadn't had anything to do with it. Two days later Vital was transferred to the TDC in Baranavičy.
“It was like we were something new to the local guards,” the man shares. “They were less tired, they could even talk to us informally. The food was good – we even got canned meat and fruit starch drink. We received a lot of letters and cards. They gave us mattresses, pillows, blankets, and mugs. At first, we were 12 people in a big 12-person cell, then I was transferred to a seven-person cell with just five people inside. A man with a prosthetic leg was there with us. He was on a ‘dry hunger strike’ for almost his whole term.”
In November 2021, Andrei Zeltser's murder caused background anxiety in Vital: he would look through the peephole now and then and listen out for sounds in the stairway.
“But after the war started on 24 February, I realized I just couldn’t stay home,” Vital recalls. “At that time, no protests had happened for a long time, everything in the country remained just as bad, but everyone seemed to have resigned themselves to it. We needed a trigger, and there it was. I had high hopes for February 27. I saw desperation and courage in people who took to the streets that day. I remember some women even approached the officers and asked them to come to their senses about what they were doing.”
But the people were not allowed to gather. The police started to arrest protesters, and some of them were thrown on the ground and beaten with batons. The crowd was advancing and retreating, and when special vehicles started arriving, Vital decided it was time to leave the protest.
“But they grabbed me by the shoulder from behind, and I realized that running away was not an option,” he says. “They took me to a van with people in green uniforms, who must have been Internal Troops soldiers. They unlocked my phone and grew furious about me having a Ukrainian flag as the Telegram profile pic. They asked, ‘Are you Ukrainian?’”
In Zavodski District Police Department, people arrested at the march and next to the polling stations were sitting for a long time. They were taken out in twos to talk to the district prosecutor. He warned that if one gets detained three times in a year, a criminal case would be opened. The prosecutor gave Vital some paper to sign that read that this would happen even if he was detained a second time. After the conversation, the detainees were taken to the TDC.
“Compared to the last time I was there, the difference was immediately apparent,” Vital says. “When entering the cell, we were ordered to take off our shoes and had to stay barefoot inside. The floor was wooden, so it was alright. The cell housed 14-15 people in five bunks, and we were not given mattresses. The atmosphere in the cell was friendly though.”
After two nights at the TDC, the inmates were taken to the Zavodski District Court of Minsk. They arrived at the court backyard in a big bus and were taken to the trials one by one. The accusation was based solely on the testimony of the policeman who had allegedly detained Vital. He was again given 15 days of detention and taken back to the TDC.
“They put 16 politicals in a four-bunk cell,” the young man recalls. “There wasn’t enough air, it was very hot, condensed water ran down the walls – a real bathhouse. At first, we were allowed to open the feeder a little, but when one inmate felt unwell and we asked them to open it a little wider and provide some aid to him, they closed it altogether. We spent two nights in such conditions. Then for four hours, we happened to be just four people in the cell, and we got some air. However, they transferred us back to an adjoining cell with the same conditions. It housed political prisoners, too, all detained on February 27.
We enjoyed a good shift of guards: they gave us tools to open the window. Because if it was closed, I couldn't sleep at all. We slept on the floor, bunks, tables, and benches. Then I was transferred again: the new cell housed 24 to 36 people in eight bunks. In my last days there, two more homeless people were transferred there, but psychologically, it was anyways easier to stay there: the cell was spacious, and I could talk to a lot of people.
One guy, Sasha Rapey, and his wife were arrested at home by GUBOPiK officers. They were detained and re-detained for a few weeks over his Instagram Stories. I think in his ‘repentant video’, they made him say that he encouraged killing Russians on social media, which was not true.
I met with political prisoner Dzmitry Ivanchanka. GUBOPiK officers severely beat him during his arrest and tortured him with a taser. He was covered in bruises.
Over time, people who had been detained after February 27 started arriving in the cell. There was one journalist who was grabbed right in the street. Or a taxi driver who was driving a client and commented on an old lady with a USSR flag the car was passing by. The passenger was outraged and started shouting at him, and the same evening the driver ended in a few-week detention.”
For the third time, Vital was detained at home. On the eve of Freedom Day, March 23, officers came to his house at 10 p.m. and told him that he had to participate in a preventive conversation with the police. On the way to the police department, the officers were insinuating that Vital knew why he was arrested and called him an “extremist.”
“At first they took me to a holding cell,” Vital recalls. “There were four homeless people and four ‘preventively detained’ like me. We tried to sleep, but at about 1 a.m. they took us to the TDC. Our first house was a punishment cell with a concrete floor and a bunk that was locked to the wall even for the night. There I saw Dzmitry Ivanchanka again – his bruises had almost disappeared by then. He was rearrested and already charged with a felony. The whole time he was kept in solitary confinement.
I also met Aliaksandr Yeudakimchyk of the Free Metalworkers’ Union there. When we played the word snake in the cell, he always won. A man with a sturdy frame, he would stop all arguments. I hear he was later arrested on a felony charge.”
In the morning, Vital was taken to court. This time he was tried for defiance: allegedly, when he was taken to the police station for the talk, he started flailing his arms, pushing and grabbing the officers' clothes. By “coincidence”, surveillance cameras at the police department were off at the time. A certain Aleksandrovich wearing a balaclava acted as a witness. Vital was again sentenced to 15 days in detention.
“Sixteen people spent their entire time in a four-bunk cell,” Vital says. “We had homeless people thrown in again, one of whom I recognized from my last time in detention. We got lice from them. Half of the detainees were ‘preventive’, like me, some had been detained by GUBOPiK officers for comments. They were beaten and tased.”
Upon release, Vital chose to go abroad. Now he found a job and is planning to study to be a linguist-dialectologist, but he would like to return to Belarus at the earliest possible opportunity.