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"I'm probably just going to die here": The situation of political prisoners from vulnerable groups

2023 2023-04-15T01:50:35+0300 2023-04-15T01:57:48+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

At least 25 pensioners and no fewer than 74 people with disabilities and serious illnesses were among the political prisoners at the end of 2022. The oldest of them, 75-year-old Natallia Taran, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for insulting officials. She has not yet been released.

For people from certain vulnerable groups, incarceration proves to be an even greater ordeal. It worsens their health condition because of untimely assistance, lack of regular medical examinations, and necessary medical supplies. On World Health Day, Viasna HRC would like to draw attention to people from vulnerable groups who stay behind bars today.


Senior people have many diseases and their progression is provoked by the harsh conditions of confinement. Without proper care, high blood pressure, heart disease, and musculoskeletal disorders cause prisoners to become increasingly debilitated. Ryhor Kastusiou, 66, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front Party, was sentenced to ten years in prison, although his health deteriorated while in custody and he was diagnosed with cancer. In the fall of 2021, he wrote in a letter that his doctor was giving him painkilling injections so that he could sleep at night. It's known that he has been tested and examined and the results showed that he might need surgery.

Political prisoner Iryna Melcher survived a hypertensive crisis. Her condition worsens every day: she has problems with her heart and nervous system. In the first month following her arrest, she could not sleep until she was prescribed sedatives. In Brest pre-trial detention center, she was on bed rest. However, she was assigned the upper bunk, from where she could not get down on her own. The prisoner also had to go to the toiler frequently because she had kidney problems. At night, she had to wait for someone to wake up and help her climb back up. She ended up being sentenced to 17 years in prison.

The leaders of the independent Radio-Electronic Industry Workers' trade union suffer from various diseases in detention. Henadz Fiadynich, 64, has heart issues and diabetes and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Vasil Berasneu's health has significantly deteriorated in pre-trial detention. The 71-year-old man suffers from pain in his only kidney. He may have cancer, but as of September 2022, he was not sent for an examination. Instead, he was constantly put on anesthesia drips. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Viachaslau Areshka, 67, suffers from several illnesses and has eye problems that may cause him to go blind. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

61-year-old prisoner Halina Dzerbysh has cancer, second-degree disability, and heart problems. Her health condition in detention has deteriorated: immediately after her arrest, she was placed in a punishment cell, where she fainted several times. It is known that the necessary medications were given to her either late or not at all. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Ema Stsepulionak, 69, a former teacher, has issues with her heart, stomach, and spine. At a court hearing, her blood pressure increased and an ambulance was called for her. However, she was sentenced to two years in prison and taken into custody in the courtroom. In the pre-trial detention center, her vision got worse and she has running eyes.

Uladzimir Hundar, a 62-year-old activist and local historian, is a prisoner with a second-degree disability, missing one leg. However, in the pre-trial detention center, he was not allowed to have his prosthesis in the cell and was not given the necessary medicine: high blood pressure provoked a hypertensive crisis. He also asked his family to send him stronger glasses and new heart pills to the detention center. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Hundar was often kept in solitary confinement and repeatedly went on hunger strikes.

The 66-year-old philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich was sentenced to five years in prison, and despite his senior age, he kept a hunger strike. During the strike, his blood pressure dropped, his arms and legs got numb and he felt very tired. Aliaksei Mironau, 62, was sentenced to four years in jail. Mikalai Statkevich, 66, who caught COVID three times during his imprisonment and developed pneumonia, was sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment. 65-year-old Alena Hnauk got three and a half years in prison.

Poor physical condition

Every disease progresses faster in detention: in addition to the lack of qualified medical care, the conditions of detention — lack of fresh air, poor nutrition, constant psychological pressure and stress — have an impact on it. For people in detention, problems that would not be serious under normal circumstances become serious issues.

European Belarus activist Andrei Voinich is terminally ill. Coming through viral hepatitis, he developed cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, a tumor over his adrenal glands, and many related complications. He also had his gallbladder removed. He needed an urgent liver transplant, and before his arrest, he visited a transplant surgeon monthly. However, in the facility where he was sent to serve his seven-year sentence, he is put into a punishment cell and deprived of care packages and visits.

The 59-year-old political scientist Aliaksandr Fiaduta was diagnosed with acute heart failure, he had attacks of angina and arrhythmia in the pre-trial detention center. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, but immediately after the transfer to a correctional facility, he ended up in a hospital because of heart problems and edema. Despite his serious condition, the prisoner went on a medical strike against the restrictions on correspondence with his relatives: for some time he refused to take pills, which could lead to a heart attack. In the autumn of 2022, his wife told the media that Fiaduta was unable to lie down and sleep properly because of his heart problems. He has had X-rays and electrocardiogram, and several doctors were supposed to meet to discuss the case, but the outcome remains unknown.

Mikita Zalatarou, 19, suffers from epilepsy. During one of the early interrogations, he was taken by ambulance to a hospital, but after intensive care, they returned him to the detention center. The youngster said that at the time he was beaten with a truncheon every day. Mikita is serving a sentence of four and a half years in prison. At the trial, he said that in remand prison he was not given any pills and the guards would say, "You are a political prisoner, you are going to die." After the verdict, Mikita Zalatarou became hysterical: he threw himself on the bars and shouted, "Let me out of here!".

Dzmitry Zalomski, 32, sentenced to two years in prison, is deaf-mute and has a hearing disability. Some of the inmates are visually impaired: Aliaksei Hubich, Vadzim Hurman, and Antanina Kanavalava could lose their vision without surgery. Antanina was registered as a visually disabled person while in a correctional facility, but she is not prescribed the necessary treatment.

Andrei Skurko has insulin-treated diabetes and needs injections four times a day. In Minsk temporary detention center, where the journalist was taken immediately after his arrest, insulin was accepted from Andrei's family, but it was improperly stored on the threshold of a stuffy cell. The prisoner also has to check his blood sugar levels several times a day with a glucometer and is on a special diet for diabetics. A witness who saw him in a pre-trial detention center reported that Skurko had lost a lot of weight and did not look healthy. It is known that the journalist was once transferred to the medical unit because of pneumonia. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Darya Afanasyeva, 27, suffers from asthma, so working with synthetic materials in the prison caused her bronchial problems. She has extreme backaches because of spring beds in prison. Arseni Maiseichyk, 20, sentenced to six years in prison, has leukemia. This requires regular medication control and an annual MRI. The youngster is also banned from many physical activities — it is not known whether this is taken into account in the correctional facility where Arseni is serving his sentence.

Ihar Mints, Pavel Hancharyk, Siarhei Batura, Viachaslau Dashkevich, Daniil Kastsiukevich, Mikhail Khamitsevich, Maryna Markevich, Yauhen Liulkovich, Volha Tsybulskaya, Volha Zalatar also have health problems that require regular check-ups, which is impossible in prison conditions.

Some political prisoners do not suffer from chronic illnesses, but when they fall ill, they do not receive adequate medical care in prisons, with serious consequences. When Yauhen Barouski fell seriously ill, presumably with maxillary sinusitis, the administration of Correctional Facility #15 refused to accept a medical parcel for him. He had severe headaches and heavy breathing. On a call with his family, he said, "I'm probably just going to die here. I feel so bad". He kept going to work with a fever as high as 38-39 degrees.

Artsiom Bayarski developed an undiagnosed allergy after four months of non-stop coughing. The condition of Marfa Rabkova, sentenced to 14 years and nine months in prison, is rapidly deteriorating due to the detention conditions. During the summer she fainted in the pre-trial detention center, lost a lot of weight, and came through a severe version of COVID. Several times she requested to see a dentist but has been repeatedly refused. Many political prisoners have dental problems: the lack of calcium and timely dental care have their effect.

Maryia Kalesnikava's health crisis began on 28 November 2022, when "problems with blood pressure, nausea, and fainting were exacerbated by excruciating stomach pains." Kalesnikava then underwent laparoscopic surgery. Before the hospitalization, she was placed in a punishment cell for 10 days. It was extremely cold and so the political prisoner hardly slept. She had several episodes of fainting, high blood pressure, and nausea. She even fainted in the shower and scratched her legs when she fell.


It is also worth mentioning political prisoners who have cancer. Some have had it before imprisonment, while others were diagnosed with it after their detention. In both cases, the condition of people is aggravated by the lack of medical care, refusal to perform the necessary manipulations and operations, and lack of access to medication.

Journalist Ksenia Lutskina has a brain tumor: it is growing and causes severe pain, which doctors treat with painkillers. She needs a consultation with specialized professionals, which is not available in detention. In February Ksenia contracted bilateral pneumonia. For health reasons, the woman was released from work in the industrial zone of the prison, where she was sent to serve her eight-year sentence.

Pavel Kuchynski, a 28-year-old political prisoner, has fourth-stage cancer, but he was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison. An inflammatory process started in detention and his condition deteriorated greatly. In July 2022, when a medical rehabilitation commission examined him, Pavel was assigned first-degree disability, while before the arrest, he was registered as second-degree. At the end of September 2022, Pavel was transferred to the Prison Republican Hospital in Minsk, where he will be kept until his PET-CT scan — preliminary treatment for cancer patients — is made. Instead of wards, patients stay in ordinary cells converted for medical use.

Uladzimir Malakhouski, 55, has cancer and a third-degree disability. He was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. The prisoner had undergone chemotherapy four times before his detention, and his health is compromised.

Ruslan Slutski, 39, has a benign brain tumor, as well as severe back pain, which sometimes prevented him from getting out of bed, but he was refused hospitalization. However, it is known that he was hospitalized for pneumonia treatment in November 2022. The convict was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment.

Mental health

In prison, political prisoners face unprecedented pressures and remain under constant stress: this worsens their psychological well-being and exacerbates the mental health problems they had before their imprisonment. Often state officials do not take these problems seriously and only make things worse.

Alena Maushuk was sentenced to six years in prison and developed a severe depressive state after her arrest. After hearing the term requested by the prosecution, the woman wrote a message in her notebook and showed it to those present in the courtroom. It read "I will hang myself". In early January 2022, Alena Maushuk informed her relatives that she was being subjected to physical and psychological violence in the detention center, deprived of care packages and family visits, and regularly punished. She also complained of her depressed mental state. It is known that Alena was deprived of her parental rights.

Larysa Kuzmenka, diagnosed with depressive disorder and claustrophobic syndrome, was sentenced to two years in prison. She felt unwell after arrest and during a conversation at the police station and was assisted by ambulance doctors. After one night in the temporary detention center, she was treated in a psychiatric hospital for two months, which did not prevent her from being arrested again six months later. In the pre-trial detention center, she took many different medications and visited a psychologist.

Kiryl Palcheuski, sentenced to three years and a month in prison, is diagnosed with a mild intellectual deficit. In detention, Yury Prakharenka lost 35 kilograms and suffered from panic attacks, psychosomatic disorders, and depression. He was sent for compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital.

Post-arrest health issues

As people in Belarus are often arrested with unjustified use of force, this sometimes leads to health problems that develop after detention. Refusal to provide timely medical care is also a way of putting pressure on people. As a result, health problems are more likely to get worse.

Siarhei Verashchahin was severely beaten during the arrest. At the hospital, the doctors diagnosed a closed head injury, cerebral contusion, multiple bruises and contusions on the body, including the chest, cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine sectors, and temporal areas. He developed blindness and numbness on the left side of his body because he was not given medical attention. Despite that, Siarhei was sentenced to five years in prison and denied rehabilitation.

Viachaslau Rahashchuk, a defendant in the so-called "Pinsk case", was beaten for three days after his arrest. According to his cellmates in Pinsk temporary detention center, Viachaslau had a hematoma behind his ear, three slashes on his head, and black round bruises on all vertebrae. For some time, Viachaslau complained of noise and ringing in his head, but he never received medical assistance. In addition, he claimed to be diagnosed with a "hemorrhage, concussion or head trauma" and a "micro stroke" in the detention center. The political prisoner was later sentenced to six years in prison.

Aliaksandr Kapshul was on a train to Moscow when his documents were checked by FSB officers. He realized that he would be arrested upon arrival in the Russian capital and jumped out of the train. With a broken leg and a dislocated arm, he managed to reach the Ukrainian border. Kapschul decided to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border legally. At the border crossing point, he was detained, and FSB officers took the man to Belarus and handed him over to KGB agents. Subsequently, the activist was placed in the KGB pre-trial detention facility. He had surgery a week later but needs rehabilitation to regain full mobility. The prisoner was not given the necessary medication without the permission of the detention center doctor. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

After his arrest, Raman Karanevich was placed in intensive care and then hospitalized with a spinal injury. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

"Rail guerilla" Vital Melnik was shot in the knee during arrest and moved around the pre-trial detention facility on crutches. The man was sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment. It is not known whether he is receiving rehabilitation assistance.

Human rights activists have drawn attention to the cruel detention conditions in Belarus for many years. They justifiably criticize the conditions in detention centers, correction facilities, and prisons, adding to the suffering caused by the very fact of incarceration.

Pavel Sapelka, Viasna lawyer:

– Since the start of the 2020 election campaign, prison administrations have created conditions for political prisoners that border on, and often become torture. Needless to say, the suffering caused by such treatment is exacerbated when people with disabilities and severe or chronic illnesses become victims of inhumane policies. Whatever the reasons, such treatment is prohibited and must stop immediately and those responsible held accountable.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) prescribes that "Persons who are found to be not criminally responsible, or who are later diagnosed with severe mental disabilities and/or health conditions, for whom staying in prison would mean an exacerbation of their condition, shall not be detained in prisons..." (Rule 109).

Speaking of political prisoners, we human rights defenders continue to demand their unconditional release, the termination of prosecution, or a review of their cases. We stress, however, that the release of those whose health and serious illness cause particular suffering and whose lives are in danger should not be subject to manipulation, political debate, or insinuation by the authorities. It must happen immediately, as a first step towards genuine national reconciliation, so as not to burden the imminent responsibility of those responsible for crimes against humanity.

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