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Belarusians who took part in last August's protests were detained in the notorious Okrestina prison in Minsk. A year on, many are still suffering from the effects of torture and abuse. DW spoke with some of them.
A woman holds a placard that reads "Okrestina: torture and death," in reference to the notorious prison in Minsk
At a press conference earlier this week, broadcast by state television, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko rejected allegations that those who were arrested for protesting the outcome of the presidential election in August 2020 had been tortured.
Only 47 people work in Minsk's Okrestina prison, Lukashenko said during his exchange with journalists and handpicked citizens.
"And they are supposed to have tortured 2,000 people, and you are supposed to have heard them screaming a kilometer away? This is all fake, this is untrue," he said.
The victims beg to differ. DW spoke with some of those who served time in Okrestina prison a year ago — and they had harrowing stories to tell.
Ivan, whose name has been changed at his request, was arrested near a polling station on August 9 last year.
"They took us to the police station. There, we had to stand for two and a half hours with our arms raised. Then they tied our hands behind our backs with zip ties and sent us to the prison in Okrestina Street, accompanied by special forces. If we moved even slightly, we were beaten," remembers Ivan, who is from Minsk. Prisoners were also humiliated in other ways, he adds.
Ivan eventually found himself in an eight-bed cell where there were already 37 men, he says. It was stuffy and the walls were damp with condensation from breath and sweat. One night Ivan felt sick, so he was given pills to treat his heart condition. He was allowed to spend half an hour in a freshly ventilated room — but that was followed by further horrors.
"For two-and-a-half days, we didn't get any food. We drank from the tap and slept on the dirty floor. When one of the prisoners asked the guard what we could do to make the beatings stop, a bucket of water was poured over him. We were constantly threatened," Ivan recalls. On top of that, the prisoners were told that all their votes cast for opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya would go to Lukashenko.
In his cell, Ivan said, he could clearly hear newly arriving prisoners being beaten. "Police cars arrived, the doors opened, the guards beat people, they screamed. At one point the guards shot a machine gun in the air to make people comply and understand they were serious."
On the night of August 12, 2020, those who were released after 72 hours of detention were beaten once again. After three days of barely being able to move, Ivan went to a clinic. Investigators came to see him the same day, and Ivan filed charges against employees of the Okrestina prison.
But nothing further happened, except that Ivan was told twice in writing that the investigation into his case would be extended. Ivan says he still has not regained his health and his former physical condition.
On the evening of August 11, 2020, Yevgeny was arrested in Minsk, and the next day he was taken to prison. "Instead of one person, there were three or four in the cages of the van transporting prisoners. Some had to lie on the floor. There was one person on top of me, and then policemen also stomped on us," he remembers.
When they arrived at the prison, they were tied up, kneeling with their faces to the wall. "From time to time we had to walk about 200 [656 feet] meters to the right and then to the left again. We were beaten while doing that," Yevgeny says.
He was then sent to a yard, which was about 25 square meters and already held well over 100 people. In the night, people used to hug each other to keep warm, he says.
"There was no toilet or water. People were in very bad shape, some had eye injuries, fractures, and some had their teeth knocked out. One young diabetic didn't get his insulin. They beat us for every request," he says.
Yevgeny was released on the evening of August 13. His mother, who is a doctor, was shocked by her son's medical report. Yevgeny says those who had been in Okrestina prison had hoped that everything that happened there was somehow only a bad dream.
There was no trial against Yevgeny. In September, he went to the Czech Republic for rehabilitative therapy as part of the Czech medical and humanitarian program, MEDEVAC. He eventually became a licensed massage therapist. His family has since joined him there.
Marina, whose name was also changed at her request, was arrested late in the evening of August 11, 2020. She says there was a full-fledged "attack by security forces on people" who were near the Riga department store in Minsk.
"There was no rally or any other event there, there were neither symbols of the protest movement nor posters with slogans," Marina says. Yet suddenly people were surrounded by buses from which security guards in dark green uniforms jumped out. Everyone had to lie down on the ground, she recalls. Some could have escaped, but those who stayed behind were taken away. She herself was hit on the head and thigh. The blow was so hard, she says she had a bruise on her leg for almost two months.
She was also taken to the Okrestina prison. According to her, people who had been marked with paint by the policemen during the arrest suffered the worst fates.
"It turned out later that on the basis of the marks, it was decided who should be beaten and how much. Among us, there were people with serious injuries, but despite our pleas and demands to quickly call an ambulance, they said we should just die," Marina says.
She spent 17 hours in the prison yard and heard men being beaten. There were loud and terrible screams, she says. The next day, Marina was sentenced to 10 days in prison. She was assigned to a four-bed cell, which already had more than 30 people. After Marina appealed, she was released after two days.
But for the first 17 hours in prison, she had to survive without food, water, or even a toilet. She couldn't sleep. Later, she was given chlorinated tap water, porridge and tea. After her harrowing ordeal in Okrestina prison, Marina's health deteriorated.
She said that last August, it seemed like most Belarusians wanted change. But today, Marina is disillusioned. "In reality, many who disagree with political repression in Belarus, even those who took part in the protests, have continued to work in the propaganda system for example, or pretend that what's happening is none of their business," she says.
Marina couldn't bear the situation any longer and, fearing for her safety, she has left Belarus.
This article was originally written in Russian.