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Hundreds of protesters were released from Belarus prison — but many remain detained. In an interview with DW, several women detail their harrowing experience behind bars and accuse authorities of inflicting torture.
When protesters took to the streets over the disputed election result that saw President Alexander Lukashenko claim a sixth a term — security forces rounded them up in a violent crackdown. About 7,000 people were put behind bars during the first days of the protests against the result of the August 9 presidential election. Belarusian authorities have said that nearly all have since been released. But as of August 17, 122 people were still temporary custody.
DW could not independently verify the figures, as many people are still missing. TUT.BY, an independent Belarusian news platform, on August 14 launched a service to trace those missing. More than a dozen people have since been located — they were either released already or were last seen in prisons. The whereabouts of 76 people remained unknown.
People who were released reported accused security forces of unprecedented brutality. Authorities have denied the allegations, but many victims are receiving treatment at the hospital. Several women, upon their release, told DW about what they experienced in prison.
Elena Budejko, an anesthesiologist at a children's hospital in Minsk, spent less than a day in custody — but she says those hours were the worst of her life. On August 11, she and several other female doctors were out on the streets during the protests, all of them volunteers wearing white coats with red crosses and carrying doctors' bags of equipment and medicine. "We wanted to stay neutral and help both sides," Budejko says.
As the group headed downtown, armed men in uniform approached and ordered the women to get into minibusses. Later, the women doctors were put into a prisoner transport vehicle. A young man, who had helped them carry their bag,s was soon split from the group of doctors. Budejko says she heard screams and suspects that he was beaten. "His name is Pavel. That's all we knew about him."
The doctors were taken to a police station in downtown Minsk. "We had to keep our heads down and our hands behind our backs," Budejko recalls.
"They left us standing with our foreheads against the wall, but we were not beaten." The police used rubber truncheons to poke at the red crosses on the coats and accused the women of militants. '"You animal, turn around to me! What's your name?' those were the kindest words," the doctor says.
Budejko describes how men were lying face down on the ground in the courtyard, their arms and legs stretched out, and how she heard screams.
A man released from custody in Minsk shows bruises on his back, which he says were from police beatings
The detainees were handed transcripts that had already been written up and just needed a signature. Those who refused were beaten, she says. Budejko says the police threatened to break her legs. Once the women signed the form, they were sent to stand in the hallway again and face the wall.
The men lying face down in the courtyard were told to sing the Belarus anthem — with the guards beating up men who they felt didn't sing well enough, Budejko says. "Those who were brought into the building had been beaten beyond recognition."
She also heard a young woman say: "Don't touch me!" The guard's reply? "What can you do to me!"
The doctors were accused of carrying bandage material and alcohol in their bags in order to make Molotov cocktails. "We were threatened with a whole slew of criminal proceedings," Budejko recalls
Upon her release, she cried for days — but the doctor intends to volunteer again to help the protests.
Olga Pavlova, a campaign staffer for opposition candidate Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, was detained for five days. She was arrested late on election night, in Minsk, while on the street. Pavlova, a medic who was carrying a first-aid backpack, found herself in the gray area between the special forces commando and peaceful demonstrators.
As the special forces began to advance, protesters began to flee — but Olga remained where she was and raised her hands. "A police officer shoved me over."
She says she was put into a van, filled with other people detained, and sent to prison.
"The men were immediately beaten. There was a Russian woman with us. She demanded access to the Russian ambassador, but she was taken into a neighboring cell and beaten. They told her she would never return home," Pavlova recalls. She describes how two guards were particularly brutal: a man with blue eyes and a woman with blond hair named Kristina. Other prisoners, she says, had spoken of the pair before.
Read more: Is Belarus closer to the West or to Russia?
Pavlova ended up in a cell designed for four — but she describes how it was packed with 36 people. When the prisoners asked for a window to be opened, two buckets of water were dumped on them. Those in the cell, she says, nearly suffocated on the evaporating moisture. One of the prisoners suffered from epilepsy, another from diabetes. Olga herself had been injured by rubber bullets and flash grenades.
It was only the next morning that detainees' personal details were registered — but Pavlova only gave her first and last name. She says she was tortured for one day — forced kneel for hours, her arms twisted, and she received threats. "Throwing us against the wall was only the mildest punishment. The men were ceaselessly and brutally beaten. They were brought one after another into the hallway, beaten half to death and taken away. Then came the next one. There was a whole line of ambulances waiting in front of the prison."
Those who refused to sign the police records were also beaten, she says. "I didn't sign anything, and they didn't know what to do with me. A police representative then came by — and even he was upset with what he saw. He brought us food; we hadn't eaten anything in two days. We drank water from the pipes," she says.
In court, Pavlova described how prisoners had been tortured and medical care refused, but the judge responded that this was not his responsibility.
The statements in Pavlova's record did not reflect the facts, and the personal details in her file — birthdate, place of residence, and even the photo — were those of a different person who shares her name. This, however, did not stop the court from sentencing Olga to 15 days' imprisonment.
She served five before being released on August 14.