ANALYSIS In two articles written exclusively for Mänsklig Säkerhet (the online magazine Human Security, Sweden) two Belarusian journalists (anonymous here but known to us) give a horrifying picture of the oppressive regime of Alexander Lukashenka. The texts also describe the vigorous resistance to a regime based on fear and terror, with excessive brutality and violence from the police and security units.
Systematic oppression, violence and fear
After the 2020 elections, Alexander Lukashenko plunged Belarus into an abyss of fear. Brazenly falsifying the results and declaring himself a winner with 80% of the vote, he authorized security forces to detain protesters en masse, to torture and abuse them in prisons, and even to murder them. Large-scale repression unfolded. But the system of total fear did not appear in Belarus overnight, as Lukashenko methodically built it up during the – so far – 26 years of his rule.
From the start when he came to power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has transformed and reconstructed the political system. In 1996 the constitutional referendum condensed unlimited power in his hands, and Lukashenko launched the chain of command to execute his every order. Anyone who disagreed with his policies instantly felt the power of the repressive machine.
Those who posed a personal threat to him disappeared from the political area. A series of abductions swept the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Viktor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky, Yuri Zakharenko and Yuri Zavadsky all disappeared. According to the political émigré and the former head of pre-trial detention center No. 1 Oleg Alkaev, they were liquidated on the direct order of Lukashenko.
Maximum intimidation to deprive opponents of the desire to demand their rights
During each election from 2006 and onwards, Lukashenko turned the repressive apparatus up a notch to sow fear among his opponents and deprive them of the desire to defend their rights. In 2020, Lukashenka again turned to his modus operandi, but this time, the level of violence was ratcheted to its full capacity.
In the three days following the election, all police forces and security units were deployed against peaceful demonstrators. Water cannons, tear gas, stun grenades, live firearms. Deaths soon followed — Alexander Taraikovsky, Gennadiy Shutov and seven other protestors. 1,400 more have suffered grave injuries, including severed limb wounds, torn stomachs and bullet wounds. Those who fell into the hands of the police were tortured and treated with extreme violence, unheard of in Belarus since the times of the Nazi occupation during the Second World War..
“Every single one of us was beaten — Pavel recalls his experience. — Someone had a broken leg, another – a broken arm. They were screaming at this guy, ordering him to put his arm behind his back, he tried to explain that he could not move it because his shoulder was dislocated. They beat him even more severely. No one even thought about asking for to go to the toilet, and many just soiled themselves“.
“’They would force the men out of their cells and clobber them in the corridor every night,’ recalls Yana of her time in the Minsk detention center. The smacks on the body were clearly audible… You doze off to the sounds of groans and screams, then wake up because someone started screaming louder. At first it causes a hysteria, but then you get used to it. It’s terrifying: you get used to the fact that people are tortured.”
“We heard how the girls were screaming. They say some of them were beaten in the stomach with batons. The intent was to damage their ovaries so they “would not give birth to the enemies of the people” — testified an eyewitness who wished to remain anonymous.
The violence has not subsided since the elections over six months ago. Since August 2020, over 33,000 people have been detained and 220 persons have been considered to be political prisoners by the human rights activists (as of January 28, 2021). Over 900 criminal cases against protesters are currently open. More than 1,000 cases of torture have been documented, including sexual violence against both women and men.
Impunity and carte blanche for extreme police brutality and murder
Not a single criminal charge has been initiated with regard to election fraud, or the deaths and grave injuries resulting from excessive use of force by the police.
Special units such as OMON (special police unit) and – somewhat ironically – GUBOPiK (Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) and the anti-terrorist unit Almaz – have been given carte blanche for their excessive and extreme brutality.
Their impunity and lack of responsibility have been confirmed and made public in a leaked audio, obtained by an anti-Lukashenko initiative BYPOL. The recording reveals the current Deputy Interior Minister and the former head of the GUBOPiK, Mr. Nikolai Karpenkov when he mentions the murder of Taraikovsky by security officials, and when Karpenkov recommends using weapons on protestors, and ensures Lukashenko’s guarantee of complete impunity:
“Deploy your weapon directly at his forehead, point-blank, right in his face, use it in such a way, so that after [the protestor] will never come back to the state in which he once was. <…> We are completely covered by the head of state in terms of the use of weapons.”
These words were spoken by Karpenkov in front of his staff in October 2020. At that point, the system had already recovered from the shock of the massive protests in August and September and began to methodically carry out reprisals on everyone who dared to pose any opposition.
The street safety, which Lukashenka had boasted for so long, disappeared in a flash. Vans with tinted windows began to roam the cities, with balaclava clad men jumping out, grabbing and taking away those who brought flowers to the place of death of Taraikovsky.
People detained for minor things, detained in crowded cells and deprived of medicine
Small things like raising a victory sign in solidarity with the protesters, or even to speak Belarusian (one of the two official languages), become a kind of marker of discontent with the state.
Thus, 16-year-old Miron was plucked off the street for speaking Belarusian when he was out with friends and his mother Christina. Alarmingly enough, Christina too and her husband, the renowned pediatric specialist Andrei Vitushko, were also arrested and detained when they came to the police department, looking for information about their son.
“I was in a four-person cell with two bunk beds, a table and a chamber pot, recalls Christina. 55 of us were squeezed inside. We were not fed. I had insulin on me, but the staff medic confiscated it, saying: “No one’s planning to feed you — what do you need it for?” Among the detainees in our cell there were a mother of 11, a United Nations mission officer in Lebanon, two journalists from the Belsat TV channel, a girl who went out to feed the cats near the entrance to her apartment block and was detained there, and also two paramedics, still in their uniforms.”
The authorities are especially upset by white-red-white ribbons and other national symbols. Special “units” have been called into action, which at times have included astoundingly high-ranking officials such as Lukashenko’s press secretary Natalia Eismont, the chairman of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation Dmitry Baskov and a Kick and Thai boxing champion — fighter Dmitry Shakuta. On the evening of November 11, one of their raids ended in a tragic death of Roman Bondarenko.
About the authors
The authors in Belarus ask to not publish their names of fear for their safety, as independent journalists have become a target for Belarusian authorities. Human rights activists report 477 cases of detained media representatives in the last five months alone, and 19 journalists are currently under criminal investigation.
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[The next part will be published on Mänsklig Säkerhet 04-02-2021.]