Dispatch Belarus: The story of L. – a young Belarusian describes her arbitrary detention, her “trial” and 15 days of imprisonment – JURIST

JURIST Belarus correspondent Ulyana Belaya is currently a student in the International Law and European Union Law program at the European University for the Humanities in Vilnius, Lithuania. She left Belarus in September 2021. The text of this dispatch has been slightly edited to preserve the author’s voice.

The Russian war against Ukraine has lasted 113 days so far. This means that this is the 113th day of delivery of Russian weapons from Belarusian territory. In a previous JURIST dispatch, I wrote about the Russian occupation of the territory of Belarus and mentioned the bravery of the Belarusian people who continue to protest and support Ukraine. However, the question of the collective responsibility of Belarusians still arises. That’s why I’d like to describe what the repression against those who took part in the anti-war protests – and against those who didn’t take part in them as well – looks like in Belarus at the moment.

To write this dispatch, I spoke to my acquaintance, L., who had the courage to share his experience. She is 18 years old and she was arrested on February 28 and sentenced to 15 days in prison. She, her friends, her sister were doing nothing – just standing in the square next to the train station in Minsk, Belarus. At first I thought I would describe her experience and comment on where and how her human rights were violated. Then I decided to repeat his own words with some explanatory interjections. This is exactly what life in Belarus is like now.

In the previous paragraph, I say that L was “detained”. This is how L. describes what happened to him:

We were standing in the square, and we had even bought tickets to go to our friends. We decided to go there if the demonstration [a protest against the war in Ukraine] did not succeed. There were about 50 people also standing next to the station, but it was obvious that most of them were policemen. They weren’t in uniform, but we all now know how to tell them apart even in civilian clothes. Also, some of them had cameras and took pictures of others. At some point, some of them broke away from the crowd and came towards us. They did not identify themselves or explain what was happening. They ignored our tickets and asked us to follow them.

Thus, at no time during L’s detention, or after his arrest or during his trial, was any explanation given to the detainees. There was also no documentation of their detention.

After giving all the information to the police office, I asked if I could go. The policeman said “Yeah, sure”, and I walked down the hall smiling happily that nothing bad had happened. But the moment I opened the door, I saw a prison truck. I thought I was free to go, but only a little further!

L. could not even get answers to his questions during his trial:

The judge asked me if I wanted to file a motion for the trial. I had no idea what I could demand, so I asked the judge. She just clicked her tongue and didn’t explain anything. During the trial, I also asked other questions, and she just yelled at me.

Since the lawsuit is mentioned, there should be a description of it. The legal community today is discussing the modernization of trials, and even online trials. Here is a description of an “online trial” in Belarus in the 21st century….

We had to wait for the trial all day since morning. Waiting means standing in the hallway facing the wall and holding hands behind your back. Those who wanted to use the bathroom had to beg for it. I couldn’t bear such humiliation, so I stayed there for 9 hours. It was also very nerve-wracking, because you never know what awaits you: a day, a week or a year in prison. The trial took place in the usual room, where there was a place for a laptop, for me and for the policeman. We were there for about 15 minutes, and only 5 of them were actually on trial. The rest of the time, the policeman was simply trying to connect with the judge via Skype. The witness wore a face mask, covering his entire face, and he was essentially reading his testimony on paper. Afterwards, some of my acquaintances told me that during their trial, the witness had the nickname “KGB” written in the application; the others saw that the witness was openly branded as “perjured”. The judge was yelling at me for asking questions and for expressing my distrust of the trial. I regret that I did not answer much, because now it is obvious to me that it will not influence anything. All of us, about 70 people who were sentenced that day, saw our conditions prejudiced.

Then L. mentions his cellmate, who has been criminally charged:

I have no hope that she will be free. I believed in it, but now I know how Belarusian justice works. More hope.

At the very beginning, I said that this article would be about the repression of anti-war protesters. However, some people are really detained for nothing. L. says about his cellmate in prison:

We were both 18, so we were the youngest. She had just come out of the subway and been detained for nothing. She didn’t know anything about politics and she asked “Who is Tsikhanouskaya?”. She was a political prisoner, however.

L. recounts her experience with lots of jokes and tenderly evokes the people with whom she lived it.

31 out of 32 women in our cell had completed higher education or were in the process of doing so. We created a program, where we had English and French lessons and some other lectures. We heard about Jewish culture and women’s rights. We also did exercises every morning.

Everyone was so nice to each other. I spent 15 days there and there were no arguments or quarrels. I felt such solidarity. On the first day, a prison employee came to tell us that there was not enough food for everyone. So they only fed half of us, but I was so impressed that we all shared food without question or argument.

Food supply problems were normal:

We had breakfast at 6am, lunch at 2pm and dinner at 6am. One day they didn’t give us lunch. We asked where it was, and the policeman said ‘Let me see’. He didn’t come back until dinner time.

L. mentions this kind of constant lies and ignorance by prison workers as something that shocked her the most:

As political prisoners, in the remand center, we slept without mattresses. Some women tried to complain about it and asked for mattresses. The jailer said, “We’re not that kind of institution that has mattresses.” The next day we were going to the trial and we saw piles of mattresses lying in the hallway. There were so many! And we had to sleep on bunks with huge holes or even on the floor.

At the prison, they refused to give medicine, saying they didn’t have any. But we could see through the door that they did.

The lack of medicine and medical help led to horrible incidents that L. told me about:

There was a woman with a chronic condition, something with her kidneys. She had to take medicine every day a few times, but she was not given any. On the 4th day, we thought she was dying, because she couldn’t open her eyes. We were screaming and calling for an ambulance. And it finally arrived after 5 hours of waiting.

Another woman had an epileptic fit. For 4 hours we asked the jailers to call the ambulance – and it was relatively quick.

At the end of my term, almost everyone fell ill. It was probably an infection or it was too cold in the cell. Anyway, almost everyone had a fever and there was no medicine.

They were giving us – 33 wives! – one pack of sanitary napkins per day.

To be honest, I don’t know how to comment on the appalling living conditions in the prison. L. had experienced sleeping on the floor; being in the prison cell with 40 people at the moment (when it was only intended to be used for 4 inmates); lack of hot water; and no toilet paper.

Once they offered to take a shower. I felt something was wrong, so I didn’t go. Those who did told us they only had time to undress. The water started flowing and stopped after about a minute. So they didn’t have the opportunity to wash and they all came back wet.

All these humiliating conditions only concerned political prisoners. And in the context of the war that was even more appalling.

The jailers drank a lot. I was told that once they were drinking, then they broke into the cell with some men and beat them. During this time, they were listening to the song called “Sky of the Slavic”, which is an anthem of the Russian Nazis.

Once all the women started coughing for no reason. There was some kind of gas in the room, and the workers suffered from it too. However, it stopped after a while. And we heard the men from the next cell. They were coughing, unable to inhale, and it was the most horrible sound I had ever heard. As usual, no explanation from the police. But some of us, who had participated in the Belarusian protest in 2020, recognized the gas. Peaceful protesters were chased with it. We decided they wanted to punish the men but we miscalculated the amount of gas.

Every day we were examined in the hallway. We have just been inspected by a woman. But then the men were beaten during the inspection. A dog was sick after them, and they were made to run.

One night we heard that a man felt so bad that he was unable to get up and walk. So the jailers laughed at him and shouted ‘Slide faster! Faster!’

The policeman told my sister that we were all Nazis. She wanted him to be killed in war as soon as possible.

L. mentions terrible things, like having to stand for hours just because the prison workers wanted to, or sleeping on the floor with lights on as usual. She says:

I didn’t do anything abnormal, I was just detained on the street. Thousands of Belrusians have been there.

And she is right. Belarusian authorities are trying to hide the protests. For example, inmates are ferried at night so no one can see how many prison trucks are coming. Despite all the terror and oppression, Belarusians continue to fight.

L. and her sister were then expelled from the university. Which is also part of the repressive machine. But she says:

I regret nothing. I remember when we were transferred to another cell. And there was a book – part of normal life, a book! – the. It was the biography of Lesya Ukrainka. And we decided to tell fortunes with it. We asked ‘Will there be a free Belarus?’ and the reply was “We received greetings from London, Geneva and Paris”. That’s what I hope.

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