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VILNIUS — It’s dangerous to oppose Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus.
While opposition leaders are calling for another wave of protests against him — an effort to restart the demonstrations that shook the country after August 9 elections widely considered to be fraudulent — anyone seen to be disloyal is at risk.
“The most grievous thing is how easily people can be arbitrarily detained, and how easily the courts imprison them,” said Nikolai Kozlov, a 54-year-old former police lieutenant colonel who became an opposition politician a decade ago. He was freed in April after spending 15 days in prison and described horrendous conditions.
Kozlov was locked up in the Okrestina jail in Minsk, which became notorious after multiple incidents of torture and humiliation of protesters were reported there.
“Today, the staff there aren’t keeping it a secret that they have orders to create unbearable conditions for everyone arrested on political reasons,” said Kozlov, a former envoy of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival during last year’s election.
Kozlov was held in a small cell designed for solitary confinement together with six other people.
“There was no way to open a window to ventilate the cell. The next morning, I said to the guards that these conditions were close to torture, that they were committing crimes for which they would have to answer sooner or later,” Kozlov said. “I suppose my comments upset them, because they poured extremely concentrated bleach solution onto the floor of our cell.”
The prisoners started to suffocate within a minute or two.
“Someone began to cough, we all began to feel nauseous,” Kozlov said. “We started banging on the door and ringing the bell.”
The guards “finally realized that they might actually kill someone,” he added. “They opened the cell, took us out, and gave us some rags to wipe the bleach … But the damage was already done. I still have problems with my eyesight. As far as I know, another prisoner’s lungs still haven’t recovered.”
Cases like his aren’t unusual. Viasna, a Belarusian human rights organization, said that as of last month there were 360 political prisoners in the country, with another 304 detained in April. It called the “inhuman conditions of detention” a deliberate government policy that amounts to “torture.”
Kozlov demanded medical assistance and was sent to hospital. Once back in prison, the mistreatment didn’t end. Lights were kept on around the clock. There were no mattresses and not enough bunks for prisoners. “Usually, there were four people to one place in a cell. The majority of prisoners slept on the floor,” he said.
“The purpose, as far as I understand, is simply to humiliate people. To humiliate the doctors, scientists and IT specialists who have been arrested,” Kozlov said. “The state wants to show these people that their place is on the floor, under a bunk.”
The lack of ventilation in cells led to almost unbearable conditions. “There was not enough oxygen,” he said, adding that the only way to get some air was through the small hatches used for delivering food to prisoners. “But if the guards were upset about something, they would close these holes. People started to suffocate then.”
Belarusian authorities deny opposition activists are tortured and kept in inhumane conditions. Interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said reports of ill-treatment and abuse with bleach were “a massive farce,” according to the official Belta news agency. However, other former prisoners echo Kozlov’s story.
Ihar Barysau, the leader of the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), was also released in April after a 15-day imprisonment. He was arrested by masked men while driving with his family to a Minsk shop. “I was forced to abandon my wife and daughter in the car,” he said in a phone interview.
He was also held in Okrestina. At first, there were seven people in his two-person cell. “After a while, there were 10 of us. The majority of them slept on the floor without mattresses. The conditions there were very difficult,” he recalled.
“At the very beginning, the guards came in and scattered all our belongings. They weren’t looking for anything, they just wanted to do something nasty,” he said. “And then they poured a bucket of bleach solution on the floor.”
The bleach was not as concentrated as in Kozlov’s case, but it was enough for the prisoners to develop headaches within a few hours, something that “causes you physical and emotional suffering,” Barysau said.
He was transferred to a prison in Zhodino, almost 60 kilometers from Minsk, where conditions were initially better. But the situation deteriorated rapidly. First, guards took away mattresses, then they confiscated all books, notebooks and stationery. Sometimes, there was not enough food for the prisoners and staff restricted food parcels brought to the prison gates by relatives.
Three days before he was released, Barysau and all his cellmates were put against a wall by a squad of riot police.
“Almost all of us got beaten on the legs. Some people got beaten on the arms,” he recalled. “Sometimes they would order you to put your hands up, and before you even managed to raise your arms they had smashed you in the kidneys with a fist or a baton.”
The opposition sees those tactics as an effort by Lukashenko to use any means possible to hang on to power.
“Among the people carrying out the beatings, there is a section of sadists who genuinely gain pleasure from humiliating people and causing them to suffer. There are some who are ideological proponents of Lukashenko, who are brainwashed,” said Alexander Dobrovolsky, a senior adviser to Tikhanovskaya.
“But the majority is made up of people who are afraid of the consequences if they don’t carry out the orders. They fear being subjected to the same kind of violence that they themselves are now inflicting,” said Dobrovolsky, who, like Tikhanovskaya, is now living in exile in Lithuania.
On Tuesday, Lukashenko signed a decree stripping over 80 military and law enforcement officers of their ranks for supporting the protesters.
“Criminal cases have been opened and are being investigated against a number of them, including on charges of terrorism,” said the decree.