"Katya, you are sure to understand everything". Story told by the journalist detained upon a court hearing in the Viasna case and banned from entering Belarus for 10 years
A trial of political prisoners Ales Bialiatski, head of Viasna Human Rights Centre and Nobel Prize winner, Valiantsin Stefanovic, his deputy and FIDH vice president, and Uladzimir Labkovich, coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign, commenced in Minsk on January 5th. Ekaterina Yanshina, acting in cooperation with the Memorial Human Rights Centre, came from Russia to attend the court hearing as an independent observer. As a reminder, in 2022, Ales Bialiatski, the Memorial and the Centre for Civil Liberties won the Nobel Peace Prize. However, after the court hearing was over, Ekaterina got detained and arrested for 15 days, allegedly, for "using abusive language at the police department". After the arrest, she was deported and banned from entering Belarus for 10 years. Currently, the journalist is at home sick, probably, with COVID-19 which she picked up at the Akrestsina detention facility. Viasna has had a talk with Ekaterina Yanshina about her detention in the courtroom, 15 days spent in a "political" cell at the custodial facility in Akrestsina Lane, deportation from Belarus and how repressions in Belarus are different from those in Russia.
"Protecting human rights in Belarus is a crime"
Ekaterina has started the conversation by saying that had she known that her being an observer at the court trial of Viasna human rights defenders would end up in arrest, inhuman treatment at the Akrestsina detention facility, deportation and ban from entering Belarus, she would, anyway, have gone to Belarus to attend the hearing.
"I would like to note that I was constantly asked, both by policemen and my cellmates, questions like "Did you understand where you were going?" or "Have you ever read news about Belarus before coming to attend such a trial?". I find it surprising that a person is not always able to believe that, having assessed the risks, one can still take those risks in order to do something important. I realized that even our law enforcement units might make my life difficult, that I might not be allowed to the court hearing, but I could not imagine that I could go to prison for 15 days. But even if I had known that it might happen, I would still have come, though I would have worn more comfortable clothes. I have no regrets about my decision, but I do regret that I managed to attend only one hearing as I was banned from entering the country for ten years.
It was, indeed, important for me to attend the trial, to see the proceedings with my own eyes, to try to give as many details as possible about the manifestly political nature of the trial, and to demonstrate that people are being pursued in court for the only reason that they defended human rights in Belarus. This is not an exaggeration, because that was exactly the wording used by the prosecutor. I have only attended one hearing, but for me personally, one hearing was enough to understand that. According to the first portion of charges made by the prosecution, human rights defenders imported money for criminal purposes. I was sitting there wondering what criminal purposes they had had for importing the money. And the next thing I hear is that the criminal purposes included provision of legal services, consultations, support to protesters, payments for the meals they got at detention facilities after being arrested, and monitoring elections. Those are the purposes which the prosecution considered to be criminal. They don’t even take the trouble to conceal it or look for excuses – they make it absolutely clear that protecting human rights in Belarus is a crime and warn everyone against doing it.
Another important reason urging me to attend the trial was that Ales Bialiatski, together with the Memorial and the Centre for Civil Liberties, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. And now, while there is a war going on, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is being prosecuted by a court for protecting human rights. I would hate myself if I had let my fear prevent me from witnessing this".
"Ales Bialiatski has shown that a person, though exhausted physically and mentally, may nevertheless stay unbroken"
The journalist has never met Ales Bialiatski or other human rights activists from Viasna who are subject to trial in this criminal case in person. However, Ekaterina knows a great deal about Belarusian human rights defenders, not least because last year the head of Viasna was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, just like the organization she is working with.
"In the courtroom, Ales Bialiatski looked tired and worn out both physically and, I suppose, mentally, but most importantly, he didn’t look broken down. In fact, he kept asserting his right to speak Belarusian. He insisted on it, even though the judge was fairly rude in rebuffing him: "You understand Russian perfectly well", "We have two state languages in the country, so you don’t need an interpreter". And yet, he went on speaking Belarusian and asserting his right. Ales Bialiatski denied all charges, thus showing that a person, though exhausted physically and mentally, may nevertheless stay unbroken. Many of us have seen in the photos taken in the courtroom that the human rights defenders, while kept in a cage, were still having handcuffs on, which means that moral pressure continues. I know for a fact that he will cope with what he has to go through".
"I don't know whether he was, indeed, a KGB officer or the court usher just wanted me to be impressed"
Ekaterina visited the court trial in the company of the Memorial co-chairman Oleg Orlov. The journalist says that Russian citizens in the courtroom were predictably expected to attract attention of both court officials and law enforcement officers.
"The entrance to the courtroom was guarded by ununiformed men. While one of the court clerks examined our passports, another one approached those men at the entrance and told them something. Nevertheless, we were allowed into the courtroom without problem and spent the whole day there. But if I "had been aggressive", they would not have let me stay till the end of the hearing and would have had me out immediately. Later the policeman who gave evidence against me before court testified that I “had been aggressive”, even though I had been allowed to stay till the end of the hearing with no issues.
Hardly had I thought, upon the hearing, that everything had gone well, when on my way out of the courtroom I was stopped by a court usher who said: "Would you follow me for a talk?". The usher took me to an office near the courtroom, asked me not to touch my phone or my handbag and told me to wait. I asked him what I was supposed to be waiting for. He said: "For an officer". I asked again: "What officer? A canteen officer?". He answered: "A KGB officer". And he left me with a young man in a blue vest. People in such vests examined our handbags at the courtroom entrance. I thought he might be a volunteer of some pro-Lukashenko movement, because it is common practice for volunteers to have some vests on. But he told me that he was from a special forces unit (OMON).
Ten minutes later, a man entered accompanied by other men, all of them in plain clothes. I don't know whether he was, indeed, a KGB officer or the court usher just wanted me to be intimidated. The man sat at the desk and demanded straight away that I introduce myself, give my full name, and produce my passport. I said that I would do it only after he did the same and after he explained to me what was going on. He was evidently displeased with my reply. He told me that he was the one to lead the "question-answer" game. To which I retorted that I was not going to play any games with him in the first place, and that, unless I was detained, I would immediately get up and leave. He didn’t expect me to confront him and was getting angry. The officer wondered whether I had studied Belarusian laws before coming to the country. That was when I told him that I had passed my exam in law science when I was a university student, so I was not going to discuss that with him either. Then the man asked me whether I was aware about extremist channels prohibited in Belarus and demanded that I give him my phone and passwords. At first, I thought that they might suspect me of having live-streamed through a prohibited Telegram channel, but later I saw that I was wrong. As I found out afterwards, this is a standard practice in Belarus, and they just wanted access to my phone. When I refused to give him my phone, he froze looking at me as if I was a half-wit. The officer repeated with more persistence: "Give me the phone!". When I refused again, he sat still for a second and then ordered those who had come with him to take me away".
"If they tell you to take out your shoelaces, it is clear that you are not going to sleep in your home bed"
This is how Ekaterina, still clueless about the reason for her detention, found herself at the Moscow District Office of Internal Affairs for the city of Minsk.
"I was brought into a room with two officers in it. The surname of one of them was Tupitsyn or Tupikin ["tupoy" (Rus.) means "stupid"] – I don’t remember exactly, but something connected with stupidity. I thought they would start questioning me immediately, but they were busy with their own affairs. One of them even said: "They have brought you in here at a bad time". And I made a joke in reply: "Well, let me go then and I will drop by when you are less busy". When I was there, they were assigning patrol teams to work in Minsk during Christmas time; there were not enough people and they tried to decide where to find them. I was witness to all of that. We were just talking and joking, they were keen to have a chat. Meanwhile, I kept waiting for questions to be asked, a detention report to be executed, but nothing of that happened.
Then, the officer introduced himself and asked me to introduce myself. Following that, he tried to run my name through their database, but, naturally, he found nothing. That is when I realized he didn’t know that I was a Russian citizen. I told him he should look through Russian databases, not Belarusian ones. "Then we will make an inquiry to Russia", said the officer. He took a photo of my passport and phoned somewhere to run my details.
Everything was going smoothly in the room, they all came to have a look at me and asked me where I worked. I didn’t answer the questions, just kept joking.
After that, one of them called a female officer and I was taken to another room to have my belongings searched. And then they told me to take out my shoelaces and take off rings and earrings. I figured out that some decision has already been taken. You see, if they tell you to take out your shoelaces, it is clear that you are not going to sleep in your home bed. I ask the girls: "Where to?". They say I should ask those in the office".
"At some point, an officer comes by, producing handcuffs and saying: "I have to place you in the handcuffs – you are a criminal after all". Then he phones somebody and says: "Take the girl away".
"Katya, you are sure to understand everything, you are a big girl after all"
Two district police officers drove Ekaterina, with handcuffs on, to the police station, while she was still unaware and uninformed of the reason for her detention.
"There, the district police officer says: "Well, tell me what happened". At that point I still had no idea about what they were going to charge me with. I say to him in reply: "In Russia, we have Article 51 of the Constitution which protects a person against self-incrimination. You are likely to have an equivalent Article in your Constitution – so specify it". But I could register neither comprehension, nor understanding in his eyes, so I had him write it down at my dictation: "She refused to give any explanations, because she believes she has the right not to do it". He wrote it all down and went on to write something in the detention report. I tell him that, as a matter of fact, I am entitled to consult a lawyer, but the officer keeps silent. Then I ask him whether he refuses to allow me the right – and he nods. Then he says: "Come over here and read it". I am surprised to learn from the report that while they all were joking with me and offering cakes to me, I was swearing, demonstrating a defiant attitude, violating public order and ignoring their warnings. Upon reading it through, I raise my eyes and ask him: "Do you understand at all what exactly you are taking part in right now?". To which the district officer says: "Katya, you are sure to understand everything, you are a big girl after all". I answer him that I understand everything, but that does not excuse them: "You are now manufacturing a case against me, and you, personally, are involved in that". At the same time, they also treated me in a friendly manner at the district station and I didn’t hear a single rude word addressed to me.
After the detention report was drawn up, the journalist’s two phones got under attachment. Following that, Ekaterina, still with handcuffs on, was taken to the city police department (CPM). The journalist was left there until morning, upon which she was transported under guard to the detention facility in Akrestsina Lane to appear before court for charges under Article 19.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences (disorderly conduct).
"I was placed in a three-by-four metre concrete cell. There is a concrete bench there to sit or sleep on. It stinks severely of urine and is very cold. I was walking, so to speak, round that cell to get at least a bit warmer. They took away my handbag and my scarf, but they left me a coat. At 5 am they came to take me to the Akrestsina detention facility. I expected to be taken to court from there.
In the night, the CPM officer who was taking me to the lavatory, asked me, like many others did: "What have you been detained for?" I answered: "I don’t know. They told me at the police station that I had been swearing. Can you imagine me deciding to swear at policemen on my first day in Belarus?". He then asked: "Could it be because you stand for the white-red-white?". Which means that for them it is clear that an arrest under that Article is politically motivated".
"You're not here to have your rights respected, you're here to suffer"
Ekaterina was transported from the GOM to the temporary detention facility on Akrestsina Street again in handcuffs. She did not yet know that for the third year in a row, detainees in administrative detention for political reasons have not been taken to the courts, but have been tried via video call at Akrestsina.
"It was early in the morning, so there were not many of us: me and several men detained for drinking alcohol, for theft. I was the only one who got detained by political reasons."
The detainees waited for registration in one-man cells, the so-called "glasses":
"I was put alone in this "glass", and the several men, as I heard, - they were put in one cell. Someone got sick, and they asked to open the door. From the first minutes in the "glass" I was plunged into the atmosphere of Akrestsina.
While I was studying the writings on the wall, where it was written "Peace to the world" and "Lord, have mercy", I heard what the employee who was registering these men was saying. As I understood, a detainee tried to open his veins with a small piece of iron, which he found in the cell. But I guess it wasn’t serious if he was sent back to the temporary detention facility.
And this employee, who was registering this person, rudely and with obscenities shouted at him asking why he did it. The detainee replied that he was treated badly by the staff, so he did so. In response to this, an employee of Akrestsina said a phrase that became the leitmotif of my stay at Akrestsina: "You are not here to have your rights respected, you are here to suffer." Then he told him something like that if he got here in 2020, then you would not even think about your rights.
This employee also said to him: "Do you know how many people we buried under the fence here?" [note - according to Viasna, during the events of 2020, no one was killed or missing at Akrestsin Street]. Then this employee added that if the detainee throws something like that again, he will be lying face down on the floor in the position of a swallow. It turned out that this employee had his last working day - he was retiring, so in parallel he was treating his colleagues to a cake. The employee told how he would enjoy his retirement, and he told one of the detainees: "You are arrested here, and I’ve been arrested with you."
A trial by skype
Until the trial Ekaterina was placed in a cell for non-political detainees in the temporary detention facility.
“There were two bunk beds with more places than women there, and there were a few mattresses, so I remember I was thinking I could sleep on the floor on a mattress, and it’s okay - I can get through this.
There were different women among my cellmates, for instance, some of them were detained for not paying alimony, some - for drinking alcohol in public places. There was one story that struck me the most: a girl was recording something for her Tik-Tok, and her employee decided that she was on drugs.
Imagine the drug control came to her house with a search, but they found nothing. They checked her phone - they tried to find some correspondence about drugs, but they also didn’t find anything. Then they drew up a report on her for “hooliganism” and arrested her for 15 days - they said that she jumped bare-chested on passing cars and behaved defiantly. "After the trial, she was sent to the isolation center, and there, like many other prisoners (except political ones), she was sent to sort garbage in a landfill like everyone else there, but she refused. This girl was told she’ll be put in the worst cell and this is how she ended up in the cell with the political detainees. She shared a little bit about the conditions there, so I could figure out what was waiting for me, but still I did not expect to see this."
Ekaterina’s cellmates told her about the administrative courts in Belarus, that now people are not taken to courts due to the prevention of coronavirus, but they are getting tried via video call right here, in the detention center at Akrestsina.
"In Russia, it also happens that they are tried via video calls, but it was not like what I saw. When I was taken to the court, I thought that now they would take me to an office where there would be a big screen, and I would see something similar to a trial.
I was taken to another floor with two non-political men for trial. And then the door opened, and there was a small room, where a guard was sitting, and in front of him there was a laptop on the table and that’s it. They said: "Come in, turn your face to the wall, keep your hands behind your back." We went in, we waited, and I realized that the trial will be held on this laptop.
After some time, we received a Skype call, the guard picked up the call and the first trial started. The judge was clarifying the first man's identity, criminal records, details and circumstances - on such and such a date this man stole sausages, Nutella and something else.
— Do you admit guilt? the judge asked
— I admit it! the detainee replied
— 13 days then. Next!
The judge just administered the justice
That was the whole trial and definitely this is not something I expected. The man sat down at the laptop - he had to report to the authorities, but he did not. The judge asked why he didn't do so. And the detainee replied that he was sick.
— How many days will you be detained for? the judge asked
— How about a fine? the man clarified
No, there is no such option, you either say it or I will appoint it myself, - the judge answers.
— Can I get three days? the detainee asked again.
— Yes, three days! So the judge ruled.
At the same time, I was thinking: ask me. After that I overheard the judge saying my surname and the trial after a break, and I heard the word ‘defender’. It made me wonder whether the Republic of Belarus will provide me as a foreign citizen with a lawyer?"
"Are we going to sue right in the hallway?"
Ekaterina was returned back to her cell, where she told her cellmates about the trial and how Tatsiana Motyl judged the detainees.
"When I said that it's Motyl, all the non-political detainees began to say: "Ooh, it's better to admit everything! She always opts for the most severe sentence, at least you'll have some chance that way. Confess everything!"
With these tips, after lunch I am taken to court again. But already, unlike in the morning, I see a bunch of people on the same floor, and a lot of women and men, completely different from those I saw in my cell. All of them were waiting for their turn to get to the laptop. There is a gap in the hallway where there are some tables and a chair. My guard is sitting behind the table with a laptop. I'm asking him: "Are we going to sue right in the hallway?" He answers that yes, because there are not enough rooms for everyone. I sit in the hallway and wait for the judge to call us. At the same time, I hear an employee of the Akrestsina shouting at those who are standing incorrectly, and may I remind you, that you need to stand facing the wall with your eyes on the floor, hands behind your back, and you can't turn your head.
Despite the fact that it all happened in the hallway amid the employee's screams, at least my court resembled a court: the judge immediately read out my rights and obligations, in general, she followed the procedure. Then she said that a petition for my protection has been received. It was a non-state defender. The lawyer asked to speak to me in private. The judge said she would come out, but she would leave the secretary. The lawyer was outraged, reminding that according to the law, the conversation with the client must be confidential. The judge, confused, started saying that "according to the rules of the court, you cannot...”. “By which rules exactly?” — the defender interrupted. The judge got confused and for some reason suggested the lawyer write a statement addressed to the head of the detention center [although Ekaterina was in the temporary detention facility], and then she got completely lost and told the lawyer that I was in custody, although no criminal case had been opened. The lawyer noted that all this is illegal. The judge left, but the secretary remained, and from my side there was a whole corridor and my guard. And here is an important thing. The lawyer asked me about my health, but no one beat me or tortured me, but let's imagine that it was the case. And So here's a guard sitting to my left, I do not know to whom he will pass on this information and can I really tell what happened to me? Probably not. I thought that this is what's happening to Belarusians. Even if you're lucky and you get a lawyer, who will let you speak to him alone? And this is a very scary situation."
"Even my guard was was watching this trial with interest"
During the trial, Ekaterina stated that police officers had not familiarized her with her rights, and simply had given her the relevant document to sign. The witness in the case was an employee of the Moscow police department, in whose name the report was signed, on the basis of which the protocol was made up.
"From the arrest report it had looked as if I had materialized out of nowhere and started swearing at policemen. From the testimony of the policeman I finally ‘found out’ how, according to those policemen, I ended up in the police department. In his testimony, the policeman explained that I started behaving provocatively even in court, where I allegedly conducted video and photography, did not respond to any remarks, so I was brought for a preventive conversation in the police department, and there I was already violating public order and cursing."
The journalist and the lawyer petitioned for the seizure of video recordings from surveillance cameras in the police department and the courtroom, but the judge said after the break that there were no cameras in that office or on that floor of the police department. Although she did not have any confirmation of this, and we do not know whether she was trying to find out these facts or just chilling in the break room. Regarding the video footage from the courtroom 1071 of the Leninsky district court of Minsk, where the trial on the "Viasna case" took place, she said that the subject of the case was Ekaterina's behavior in the police department, and not in court, which is why she rejected the petition.
The journalist's lawyer found many violations in the case, one of them was that the name of the eyewitness — a police officer in the report, in the protocol of detention and in the protocol on an administrative offense itself was written in three different variations: in one place he is Parfeonovich, in another — Parfeanovich, and in the third — Porfyanovich. When asked by the lawyer how it happened that his last name was written in three different versions, at first he replied: "It happens, got tired, made a mistake". And after that, suddenly he said that he was not the one who drew up the protocol of detention, despite the fact that the column "protocol drawn up by'' contained his full name and signature.
Judge Motyl retired to decide the verdict. It took an hour and a half. As Ekaterina noted, during that time they managed to try all the people in the hallway.
"Even my guard was interested in following this trial. When the judge left to make a decision, he told me: "She'll let you go. For sure she'll let you go, and then you'll go get your smartphones back, because they have nothing on you". He noted that it was interesting. Then other guards would come up, because all the trials had already ended. We had been waiting for a very long time. If at first I was sure that they would give me the maximum, then later I had doubts, because in order to sentence me to 15 days it is not necessary to think for an hour and a half how to do it."
"Do you even understand what kind of place you are in?"
But eventually, Judge Tatyana Motyl sentenced Ekaterina Yanshina to 15 days of arrest. The journalist was transferred to the detention center.
"We were being registered there again. Apart from all the men in the hallway there was me with some other girl. The men were examined right in the corridor, so the girl and I were taken behind a corner not to embarrass anyone. That girl whispered: "What are you in for?" I whisper back: "For coming to the political trial." And she was detained for a repost. Then an employee approaches us with a pen and a piece of paper and says: "Yanshina, give us the passwords from your phones." Let me remind you that my phones were not in the detention center, so he was not asking for himself. I told him I wouldn't give him anything. And then I saw that expression on his face again: he was looking at me as if I was crazy or a fool. Then he asks a stupid question: "Why?" I answer: "Because I have the right to do so." I see that expression on his face again, he turns around and walks away in silence. And I hear him repeating to the employees: "She says she has the right." Probably, they told him that this Russian woman did not realize where she was — you go explain that to her. He comes back and says: "Do you even understand what kind of place you are in? Do you understand what they do to people here? Do you understand that you may not get out of here? You won't regret it later?". Yet he says all that not in a threatening tone, but in a rather casual one. I answer him: "Who knows, maybe I'll regret it — we'll wait and see." Again I witness the same facial expression that I saw before after giving similar answers".
After being registered, near the cell, Ekaterina met the infamous employee of the detention center, Yauhen Urubleuski — Ekaterina identified him by his thick eyebrows after she got released:
"He’s telling me: "I recommend you listen to the advice that smart people give you." At first I didn't understand what he meant, and I told him: "Listen, I've been talking to some "smart" people all day, what do you mean?" He clarified that he was talking about the phone passwords.
Already at large, I found out that it was a well-known employee of the detention center, who in 2020 was beating both men and women, including a Russian woman. Therefore, he probably knew a lot about this kind of advice that he so condescendingly decided to give me."
"This is the threshold when you don't faint from stuffiness, yet there is no space left anymore"
After being registered, Ekaterina was placed in one of the notorious cells for political detainees:
"When the door to the cell was opened, I saw an iron bunk bed without mattresses, pillows, blankets. I also saw more people than the beds, a narrow table against the wall, a narrow bench, a toilet separated by a wall, two video cameras in the corners and that's it. This teeny-tiny double cell is packed with girls and women: some are sitting on the bed, someone on the floor, someone on the table.
There were about 10 people in the cell when I was brought in, and at night we were bundled up to 15 people. The detention center staff tried to maintain this number of people in our cell. Because this is the threshold when you don't faint from stuffiness, yet there is no space left anymore. Ventilation is provided in the cell, however they turn it on only when they come with inspection themselves. Usually we asked to open at least the feeder in the door for us, because it was simply unbearable to be there. We didn't talk much to each other to save air. The cell looked like a sweat room, because the heating cranked all the way up.
When there was a full set of people, we slept like this: two people — on the upper tier, two more people — on the lower tier, some on the table, and everyone else — on the floor. But you have to be careful on the floor not to touch anyone with your feet. We put shoes under our heads. But it was impossible to sleep like that, because you lay down, open your eyes, and there's a bug or a wood-louse crawling. Some were allergic to bites and they were covered in red spots. It was very painful to sleep on the metal bed, because instead of a mattress there were these metal planks and your whole body got covered with bruises. But to be honest, by the end of the term, I was already sleeping calmly on a metal bed with shoes under my head, because my body had already adapted."
The journalist emotionally tells that the conditions in her cell were different from the others. There was a special regime in these cells: a bright light is turned on all day and all night, you can't lie down during the day, they wake you up twice during the night for inspection.
"There were always at least two antisocial people in the cell. These are the people detained for consuming alcoholic beverages, having no permanent place of residence. They could smell bad, they could have lice. At the same time, staying with us is also torture for them, because in another cell they would have human conditions, a place to sleep, they might even be taken to the shower. But they were used to punish us, which turned out to be a punishment for them as well. At some point, there were five of these women. Apparently, when there are not enough political detainees, but you still need to maintain a "full set", these types of people are deliberately admitted to the cell. One woman had a disability — she was mentally challenged and behaved like an adult child. And she was placed in such torturing conditions, can you imagine? You can find a common language with all of them. They turned out to be simple women with broken destinies and an interesting past. You can teach them how to wash their hands after the toilet, treat them for lice and improve their lives."
"Urubleuski says: "Yes, I'm the main fascist here!"
According to the journalist, every morning during breakfast a "shmon" (a "frisk", a slang name for a prison search) took place in the offender isolation center conducted by the employees of the center wearing balaclavas or medical masks.
"We all go into the corridor, face the wall, raise our hands up on the red line, spread our legs wide. An employee examines us and passes a metal detector over our shoes. Meanwhile, the attendant calls the surname and we have to say the name and patronymic. At the same time, our cell was turned upside down — they went in there with sledgehammers, knocked, threw things everywhere. Employees at the "shmon" may make some comments, they may joke, and one once said: "Liberalist pricks have gathered". They really don't like it when you look at them during this procedure. "Eyes on the floor!", they yell. Apparently, they don't want their faces to be remembered.
Once we were taken out to the traditional morning "shmon" and someone from the staff was surprised how many of us were there. And then it's Urubleuski who says: "Yes, I'm the main fascist here!" This is funny considering that there is an article in Belarus for the "rehabilitation of Nazism". However, this person is proud and calls himself the main fascist. He enjoyed it. He made it clear that thanks to him there were so many of us. Before my incarceration, I had read articles about him and I realized that this sobriquet corresponds to reality. On another "shmon", Urubleuski maid such a joke: “Look, the “zmagarykhs” (the political label denoting citizens of Belarus who are opposed to the government, literally means "fighter") have already merged with the homeless, the same dirty and squalid, you can't tell the difference."
Article 130-1 of the Criminal Code. Rehabilitation of Nazism
1. Deliberate actions to rehabilitate Nazism are punishable by a fine or arrest, or restriction of liberty for up to five years, or imprisonment for the same period.
2. Actions provided for in part 1 of this Article connected with violence or committed by an official using his official powers shall be punishable by imprisonment for a term of three to ten years.
"When it's already stuffy, and you've hung things up to dry, it turns out to be a real bathhouse"
For the third year now, parcels are not accepted for detainees in the Okrestina detention center, so they serve their arrest without replacement clothes and personal hygiene products. Ekaterina came to the court in trousers and a jacket — she sat in a suit for all 15 days:
"All the time in this cell we were in the same clothes. Those who were detained at home managed to take some things with them, but it could not be carried into the cell. We had household and ordinary soap from hygiene products but we had to start asking for them in advance because they would be given to us only in a few days. The same goes for toilet paper. Upon request, the nurse gives out only two pads per day — they are very thin and of course they are not enough.
It is necessary to wash socks or underwear sometimes — that's what we did. But some bigger things like hoodies or pants we tried not to wash or to wash rarely, or when the ventilation turns on, somehow we had to guess the moment. Because when it's already stuffy and you've hung things up to dry it turns out to be a real bathhouse and it's impossible to be there.
On the second-to-last day of my stay, a non-political woman was thrown into our cell. She was at work sorting garbage in a landfill and said something wrong to someone. This woman comes in and she has five bags of things with her. She has a toothbrush, a crossword, a pen, books and hand cream! We look at it and can't believe that this is reality. Or we are sitting in a cell and we hear people discussing in the corridor that bed linen needs to be changed in some cell. And you sit like this on your floor surrounded by bedbugs thinking: "These people live!"
"GUBOPiK (local Crime Control Department) is a version of what our Center "E" (russian Directorate for Combating Extremism) dreams of becoming"
Police officers came to the journalist, as well as to the rest of the prisoners, with traditional preventive conversations. Ekaterina notes that on the "days" (while serving a sentence) the most terrible thing is not life to which you can adapt over time but the uncertainty of whether they will come out after these 15 days or not:
"You sit there and they keep your phones. And they keep digging and looking. Perhaps they will find another repost from you and condemn you for 15 days. By repost I mean private messages to a friend. Perhaps through you they will reach out to another person. There was a woman with us who didn't understand how they saw her page online because it was closed. And she assumed that someone of her acquaintance had been detained earlier. As far as I understand, GUBOPIK, an analogue of our "E" Center, is engaged in political affairs in Belarus. Only GUBOPiK is a version of what our Center "E" dreams of becoming. And now the employees of GUBOPiK can take you to their place and record some "penitential" video which they will merge into their telegram dumps.
"Do you think we've forgotten about 2020? So — we remember!"
Sometimes an operative from the police department comes to Okrestina to conduct preventive conversations. Their subject matter depends on what you have found. If nothing is found, then the conversation will be of such a plan: "What is your salary? Are you living badly? Don't you love your country? Do you think that all your oppositionists who have left love their country? They're just shitting it!" And if they found a photo of you from the protests, even if you were standing on the sidewalk then most likely there will be a criminal case. There was a woman with us from one chat who had a photo from the protest where she and her daughter were found. And she was told that there would be a criminal case and that "she had framed her daughter!"
An operative also came to me for a conversation. I didn't know that everyone was writing about my detention and arrest. And this operative was trying to figure out who I was. "What were the instructions and who gave them?", "On whose assignment did you do this? Maybe for the "Dozhd" (russian independent TV channel, literally translated as “rain”), he asked. But I decided to laugh it off so as not to hurt myself so I said that in Russia all the shops were closed and I came to get clothes and decided to go to the court at the same time! Of course, he didn't believe me. He asked how many days I was given and then added: "Well, 15 is still not enough. Then there may be another 15, then another 15, then another 15. Then he asked me what I was doing at the trial. I said the defendant was a Nobel laureate. "Do you feel a lot for Belarusians or something?”, he replied.
Then he started talking about the 900 thousand dollars found at Tikhanovsky's behind the sofa: "Do you think the police planted them for him? The police work clearly and under control!" I said I've already figured it out according to my fake arrest report. It seemed to me he had made it clear that he would come to me again. At the end of the conversation he said: "Do you think we've forgotten about 2020? So — we remember!" He further closes his notebook, gets up and leaves. From this I conclude that the repressions that are happening with Belarusians now are due to the fact that the police really remember 2020 and cannot forgive it. And since the police have already run out of outspoken activists they detain everyone in a row. The ones I saw were women who lived their little lives and didn't expect to be visited. She is an architect, a pensioner, a singer, a music teacher, an accountant. These are ordinary women but the police came to them only because this machine of repression needs to be refueled".
"I was sitting there wondering how many electric shocks I can withstand before I break down and give passwords"
Ekaterina says that she has met people detained for participating in district chat rooms since 2020, for forwarding posts in personal messages from “extremist” channels. The journalist told the stories of some of them:
"Perhaps something had been written in those chats back in 2020 but now they are either completely dead or some rare messages like "advise a manicure master" or "I have baby food left - who needs it" appear. Two of the detained women had left this chat a long time ago. And now the police break into the homes of the participants of this chat with searches or come to their work. Of course they don't find anything during searches but most importantly they take your phone and demand passwords. And you can't not give passwords... As I was later told, a girl who had simply forgotten her password had been tortured with electric current. She had been beaten with a stun gun in the heel so that there had been no traces. It happened to a human right defender Nasta Loiko. When I refused to give the passwords I was told this story. And then I sat there wondering how many shocks of current I can withstand before I break down and give passwords.
Many people are under arrest for “reposts”. For instance, you get 15 days if you just forward the exchange rate to a friend but from an "extremist" chat. One woman found a photo with symbols in the archive stories on Instagram from 2020 — a protocol was drawn up for picketing. The security forces are looking for Red-White-Red symbols, reposts, subscriptions. If they don't find anything then they draw up a protocol on disobedience to the police because they have already come and they can't just let us "go in vain". And so you will serve 15 days just for the fact that the security forces came to you. One cellmate had a subscription to an "extremist" channel on her phone so the protocol was drawn up for disobedience because, as they say, "there is no reason for you to subscribe to such channels!". And she didn't even read it—there were thousands of unread messages hanging there.
I was sitting in the same cell with Anna Livyant, the daughter of the famous tutor Eugene. She and her husband Nikita were detained at the trial when they came to her parents' trial. And during the morning "shmon" she listened to hear the name of her father or mother. She already assumed then that she would have a criminal case. While sitting on the Akrestsina you don't want to be released early because if someone comes for you ahead of time it means that you are not going anywhere. This means either a new administrative case or a criminal case. This is what happened to Anna. She was taken away earlier and we learned from another girl from the temporary detention center that she had a criminal case and was waiting to be sent to the pre-trial detention center.
"Everyone knows even the day when the raids take place!"
There was a political woman with us who had an appendicitis attack in Akrestsina. They took her to the hospital, performed an operation there and five days later they put her in our torture chamber where she, as everyone else, slept on the floor. After her appendicitis surgery the woman needed to have her bandages changed every day by a nurse. The nurse at Akrestsina was reluctant to come to the cell and help, she never administered anesthetic injections.
Akrestsina turns out to be a conveyor because the political chambers are never empty — they are constantly replenished. Everyone knows that big roundups take place on Thursdays and a lot of people will be brought to the detention center on Friday. And so it was — they brought women from the chat. Everyone knows even the day when the raids take place! This is such a built-up system of persecution. The security forces come not because they know what to look for but to pick up the phone and find something in it. Sometimes they come to the cell and just take a person away but we don't know if they put him in another cell or transfer him to the temporary detention center to be sent to the pre-trial detention center. Once three girls were taken away at night to no one knows where."
"It was a great privilege to know many days in advance that I would be released and deported"
Ekaterina, says she didn’t know how things would be going next, but in general, she didn’t believe anything nasty would happen to her.
"I didn’t consider myself to be of any significance as a detainee; moreover, being a Russian citizen, I was not worth the trouble.
Later, I found out that my lawyer made two attempts to see me. The first time, early in the morning, she was told during a video call that I was not there. However, she didn’t give up and was insistent, so they had to admit that they had just found Yanshina on their lists and had been unable to do that before, because the lists were being updated at the very moment she was asking about me. It turned out to be a common practice to deny that a person is kept in the custodial facility. Then she was told to come in the afternoon, but when she was back by 2 pm, they refused again to let her in under the pretext that all meeting rooms were occupied and advised her not to wait, as the rooms might not be free until the next day or even at all. My lawyer never managed to see me. She phoned the Russian Embassy to say that she would meet me at the exit and if, upon being released, I told her of any violation, we would unfailingly have it recorded and file a complaint.
I already lost hope to be released without fuss, because I had refused to give them passwords to my phones, while it was so important for them to get them. But then an officer enters the cell and says to me: "Out! No belongings!" I thought I was going to have another talk with an investigator, but it appeared it was an immigration official who came to inform me that I was to be deported on 20 January. It was, in fact, a great privilege to know many days in advance that I would be released and deported. The immigration official came to find out whether I had enough money to buy a ticket. If I had happened to have no money, I would have had to wait at the Akrestsina facility until a ticket was bought for me. I told the official about my phones – and he promised to take them himself. Then he asked: "Look, why are you here in the first place?". I explained to him that I had attended the court trial of Ales Bialiatski, but he had no idea of who Ales was! So, he asked: "Who is he? Somebody political?". Hearing my affirmative reply, he said: "Makes sense then!". In Russia, they would have asked me what I did wrong at the court, but here everything was clear at once and he had no more questions".
Pursuant to the detention report, Ekaterina was to have been released on 20 January as 4:45 pm, but they got her out a few hours earlier:
"I understand now that it was done to prevent my lawyer from meeting me at the exit and to prevent us from taking any actions together. The immigration official said that he had tried to get my phones but they told him at the Moscow District Office of Internal Affairs that my phones were to be left with them for an expert examination. Then he remarked that I, of course, was free to wait until the examination was completed, which could take up nobody knows how long, but in that case I would have to wait at the Okrestina facility. Upon which I decided that my phones were not that important to me".
"Since they wanted me to be out of Belarus as soon as possible, they decided they might as well deport those two together with me"
The journalist got back her belongings, which were with her when she had been brought to Akrestsina, but the officers took money from Ekaterina’s handbag to cover expenses for her meals at the detention facility and the custodial centre – 240 roubles:
"They folded up a sheet of paper into an envelope and took care to make an inscription in pen: "320 roubles – 240 = 80 roubles". Then they put all the change, to the last kopeck, into the envelope. I didn’t manage to find out where the rest of my things were, but I decided to give up on them.
When I was taken out of the Akrestsina facility, another immigration official approached us with two men who were also to be deported. The officer told those men that they were lucky it was my deportation date, because otherwise they would have been kept there longer waiting. Since they wanted me to be out of Belarus as soon as possible, they decided they might as well deport those two together with me. They placed the two men in handcuffs and said they had no handcuffs left for me".
"He takes a pen and I see with my own eyes how he inserts the time in the blank field"
Ekaterina and the men from Russia were taken to the Minsk airport.
"We were whiling away time there, when I was given papers in relation to my deportation. This is how I found out that I was to be deported for 10 years. I thought that one detention report was too insignificant to give a ground for a ban of such duration. Therefore, I expected to see something else in the papers, but according to the documents, the only ground for deportation was, indeed, a report of administrative offence executed for my "swearing at the District Office of Internal Affairs". I was told about cases in Belarus when a foreigner kept stalking his family members and beating them, had a range of criminal cases initiated against him, but only got deported after he was detained for the eighth time. Meanwhile, I was deported immediately and was even banned from entering for 10 years.
The immigration official gives me a document reading that my deportation case will be considered today, on 20 January. Meanwhile, I am at the airport already and my flight is about to take off! I say: "Look, do you want me to sign it post factum to confirm that I had been notified of the hearing and failed to appear there?" The official says: "Why post factum?". He takes a pen and I see with my own eyes how he inserts the time – "5 pm" – in the blank field, while the actual time is about 4 pm. Then he says: "Shall we go there then?" Of course, we were not going anywhere. It was nothing but a bald demonstration that the decision on my deportation was taken just like that – nobody, in fact, considered the issue. Then they saw me and those men off to the boarding gate, gave us a wave and we flew away".
"Our law enforcement officers dream to have it all here in the same way as it happens in Belarus"
Throughout our conversation the journalist keeps saying that nothing terrible has really happened to her, while Belarusians are not so lucky:
"Reading news is one thing, and to see everything with your own eyes is an entirely different thing. I have come to understand that we have no idea about what is going on in Belarus. Even I, with my Russian experience, felt startled. When at the custodial facility, I thought I would be able to make some calls, to have somebody bring a care package with my clothes, because my suit jacket and trousers were too smart for sleeping on the floor with bed-bugs. But it was not the case. As an illustration: upon being brought to the custodial facility I asked the escort officer whether I would be given any books. The man in plain clothes standing nearby grinned and said: "But of course, you will get books, and table games, and play billiards in here!". At that moment I realized that I was going to face conditions which I had not expected.
When my cellmates were telling me their stories, about their cases, about the repressive machine working in Belarus, I felt like those foreigners to whom you try to explain what is going on in Russia. They listen to your stories and can’t believe them. And here I was, coming from Russia, where human rights are not respected, to put it mildly, and, like those foreigners, wondering: "How can it be?!". This is what we have not yet seen in Russia. My cellmates said: "Don’t worry, you will have the same very soon". I think so too, because this is what our law enforcement officers dream of – to have it all in the same way as it happens in Belarus, where the situation is much worse. I promised the girls that, upon being released, I would describe what I saw in as many details as possible. With the war going on and other terrible things happening, we are unforgivably silent about what Belarusians have to experience now".
Ekaterina has fallen ill – these are the consequences of the 15 days spent at the Okrestina facility. It is her guess that all women from her cell have contracted coronavirus infection.
"I got in touch with my cellmate who was released from the custodial facility 5 days before me. She had a COVID-19 test done and it was positive. So, what we all caught there was coronavirus infection. The personnel have created a breeding ground for the virus there, and now they use it as an excuse for the restrictions they impose in relation to the prisoners".
"They are left alone against that monstrous system which can’t forgive Belarusians for what they did in 2020"
The journalist emphasizes that stories about the mass repressions against Belarusians which have never stopped over the recent three years should be given more publicity:
"I am talking with you from home, I sleep in my bed at night, but as we speak, those Akrestsina cells are again packed with ordinary men and women. Some of them will be released, some of them will have criminal cases initiated against them, and no lawyers will be able to see them, and no mass media will be writing about them – they are left alone against that monstrous system which can’t forgive Belarusians for what they did in 2020. This is terrifying".