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“The KGB thought we were a sock puppet farm”: Political prisoner reveals behind the scenes of the Zeltser case

2023 2023-04-13T16:06:57+0300 2023-04-13T16:06:57+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
A protester holds Andrei Zeltser's photo.

A protester holds Andrei Zeltser's photo.

At the end of September 2021, a wave of arrests swept across Belarus for comments regarding the deadly firefight between IT specialist Andrei Zeltser and KGB officer Dzmitryi Fedasiuk. Detainees were isolated for six weeks in inhuman conditions. They could not receive any care packages as well. All of the defendants in this high-profile case were deprived of liberty. As of today, dozens of people have already been released, having fully served their terms. Alisa (her name has been changed for security reasons), a former political prisoner in the so-called Zeltzer case, told Viasna about her experience.

“Some people dressed in all black start running around the apartment and looking for something”

When the gunfight happened on September 28, 2021, Alisa and her kid were at home. She read on social media the news about the IT specialist Andrei Zeltser who was shot and killed by a KGB officer during a raid on his home in Minsk. The woman was impressed by the news and posted a single commentary on YouTube. The next day, state security officers came to her house.

“It was like in a movie: nine fully geared officers burst into my house, the one in front was holding a sledgehammer and drove me into the closet, and my husband was forced to put his hands against a wall and spread his legs. A six-year-old child runs between us with wide eyes, not understanding what’s happening. And then some unidentified people dressed in all black start running around the apartment and looking for something, maybe some [protest] attributes, weapons, or drugs. They found nothing and told me to give them all my technical devices. The child was told that “they will talk to mom and let her go”. When I was leaving, the kid was screaming and crying. This is the last memory from home. After that, I didn’t see my family for almost 18 months.”

The child was in therapy for a year after that, Alisa says. It was hard for him to bear the separation from his mother.

“The KGB thought we were a sock puppet farm backed by Polish ‘puppeteers’”

Like other detainees in the Zeltser case, the woman was brought to the KGB (State security committee).

“That night, everyone was there: [Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Belarus, Commander of Internal Troops of Belarus] Karpiankou, [Chairman of the KGB] Tsertsel, [Head of the Special Rapid Reaction Unit] Paulichenka, and even Lukashenka —one of the detainees heard his husky voice from the next room where he was giving some instructions to his subordinates all night long. While many people were being arrested, they were discussing something all night. Women came first when they started bringing people in on Akrescina [detention center]. They were met personally by Tsertsel, and then there was a command not to bring in any more women but only men. No one expected the commentators to be educated women having families. They were shocked.

They kept asking who pays me. And I didn’t even get it and said my work organization pays me. Then the officers asked me who else would give me money. So I say that sometimes my husband gives me money. Then they start shouting, ‘Don’t pretend you don’t understand.’ The KGB thought we were a sock puppet farm backed by Polish ‘puppeteers’. They thought they had captured a mob, a network of people who are given a command and write comments.”

The KGB officers took a picture of Alisa’s phone, and only then did she realize that she had been detained for commenting. Then she asked, “Seriously? Are you going to detain me for one comment?” The detainees in the Zeltser case were primarily charged under part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code, “incitement to other social hatred by a group of persons”.

“The KGB wanted to present us as a group as if we knew each other and were given some commands and tasks, we posted [it online], and then we were paid for it. The security agents shouted, ‘Come on, turn state’s evidence! Who are your associates?’ And I didn’t even know such a word.”

“People were arrested by the dozen”

All women arrested in the Zeltser case were placed in one two-bed cell on the second floor at the temporary detention facility Akrescina. Sixteen people were kept in this cell without mattresses or bedding for five days. When Alisa and other detainees were brought in, Maryia Uspenskaya, the wife of killed Andrei Zeltser, was already in the cell.

“She was shocked that so many people were being detained because of comments about her husband. Maryia cried a lot about not being able to bury her husband and not being able to say her last goodbyes to him. Sometimes she would go delusional and say, ‘Listen, but how do I pay the bills from here?’ She was in such a state of wild shock that she would go back in her mind to the times when she had a normal life. In Akrescina, the staff mistreated her.

They didn’t beat us on Akrescina. For three days, the [facility’s] doors never stayed closed and they had no time for beatings. It was crazy in there! They were bustling because so many people were being seized back then! All floors of the Akrescina temporary detention facility were filled with those detained for commenting. People were arrested by the dozen. Some guys were taken straight from the pool in their swimming trunks, and someone was taken from the hospital room while waiting for kidney surgery. In my presence, a radio message was sent to the airport, ‘Immediately delay the flight from Minsk to Moscow’ [probably, this was about the detention of journalist Henadz Mazheika–Viasna’s note]. Some were severely beaten, some were bleeding, and some even had their ribs broken.”

“What these maniacs would do next, we did not know”

The next day, officers started to transport people to the detention center, as all of them were taken into custody. They were supposed to be kept in pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk, but some of the people were taken to Žodzina prison for some reason. According to Alisa, 139 people in the Zeltser case, of whom 14 were women, ended up in Žodzina. All defendants in the case were isolated for 48 days in so-called quarantine, during which one cannot receive packages, shower, or have some time outdoors. All women detainees were placed in one eight-bed cell:

“It lasted for 48 days. It was really like we were captives. What these maniacs would do next, we did not know. Obviously, they decided what to do with us while we were doing time. It got to the point where we started remembering our relatives and what we would tell them because we thought we would never see them again. We discussed that we hadn’t said important words to them when we left. We constantly listened to the sound of cars and police vans arriving. One woman keeps saying, ‘My God, girls, they must take us to the forest.’ She repeated this every day; the thought was so deeply stuck in her head that it was like she was going into psychosis.

We practically didn’t sleep there. Officers wouldn’t let us sleep during the day; they always woke us up at night, and the lights were on. On about the 42nd day, we were woken up once again for a check, where we had to give our surname and article. One girl answered ‘Kuźma Čorny’ [Belarusian poet–translator’s note] instead. She has already forgotten her name—that’s how they psychologically bring women down. And then they must have realized that it was time to stop harassing us. After this quarantine, two women went to [mental health institution] Navinki for examination.”

“We were terrified because we didnt expect such harsh sentences”

Like the other defendants in the Zeltser case, Alisa's trial was held behind closed doors. The woman was sentenced to 24 months in jail for a single comment on YouTube.

“All the comments were subjected to a linguistic and psychological examination. But in almost all cases, the experts did not confirm any of the [Criminal Code] articles indicated in the charges; in some cases they confirmed only one article. However, the investigators didn’t drop charges against us under any article of the Criminal Code. Many of them got a promotion within a year.

When I was transferred to Pre-trial detention center No. 1 before the trial, several of our girls had already been convicted. They received from 24 to 30 months in jail and fines. We were terrified because we didn’t expect such harsh sentences. We didn’t expect things to be this bad.”

Alisa says that she had met doctors, teachers, and IT specialists among the political prisoners.

“All of them were intelligent women with higher education, often more than one, specialists in their field, with good families.”


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