Lukashenko’s government has been accused of responding to the protests with disproportionate force and violence, but allegations of mistreating the people behind bars have made the public even more outraged at the government. .
A woman named Olesya told CNN she was arrested on Sunday while walking down the street with her boyfriend in the capital Minsk.
She said she was forced to strip naked with other women before being searched at a detention center. Olesya, who refused to give her last name for safety reasons, said she was later placed in a small cell with 17 other women. All of them were given a bottle of water and had no food and were forced to sleep on the floor or a small table.
The guards periodically cut off their access to water to silence them. They also refused medical assistance to one of the women, who was injured by a rubber bullet.
Olesya said she spent about 14 hours inside the facility and was released after being forced to sign a paper with what she said were false accusations against her. However, her boyfriend is still missing. She was very worried because men seemed to be treated much worse than women, according to witnesses.
“They will put four men in a 1.5 meter (5 foot) cell, three people are standing, but they force the fourth to crawl inside like a dog and stand on their knees,” said Olesya. .
Olesya said she continued to return to prison to get information about her partner and help others.
“Very scared while waiting outside, we could hear how they were beaten, they were crying, they screaming,” she said. “They burst out of there with crazy eyes and half asleep … they just ran in any direction the guards told them and also told them not to come near us, who could help them home. , threatened to bring them back to the prison. “
At the Okrestina detention center in Minsk, hundreds of people have gathered over the past two days looking for their relatives and friends, who have been detained during the protests. Several people went missing for days, according to people interviewed by CNN, as authorities often do not disclose the locations of the detainees and prohibit giving food, water or medicine. As of Thursday, about 6,700 people have been detained across the country, according to the Interior Ministry.
Ivan, who also didn’t want to reveal his surname, told CNN that while he was looking for a friend at the detention center early Thursday, he witnessed a young man with a broken arm and leg left out of the building.
“People are being beaten and tortured from the moment they were held in the streets,” Ivan said. “Then, they were taken to the local police station, beaten there and then they brought them here after a day or two, and the beatings and torture continued.”
Several others have shared similar accounts of abuse in government detention. Reports and photos showing the injuries of the detainees have also appeared on social media. In a statement, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said it had recorded dozens of cases of violence against journalists, while some were still in detention.
The independent Russian newspaper Znak.com ran into the account of one of its journalists, Nikita Telizhenko, who reported in Minsk and said he had been detained for 16 hours with many protesters being necked in the street, people forced to lie face down in pools of blood, with several men piled up.
Telizhenko said: “The most brutal beatings are going on around: hitting, screaming, screaming and screaming. “I felt that some of the detainees had broken bones – arms, legs, thorns – because with a little movement they screamed in pain.”
Telizhenko said he was eventually released after intervention from the Russian embassy, which helped to release and repatriate several journalists back to Russia.
A change in tactics
Despite facing such brutal repression, the opposition shows no sign of retreat. But it changed strategy and tactics.
Thousands of mostly female peaceful protesters lined up with white flowers and balloons in the streets of Minsk on Thursday as part of a more decentralized protest. Across the country, women are forming a so-called “chain of solidarity” to demand an end to violence and detainees to be released. Ribbons, bangles and white shirts became symbols of the movement, a color that initially represented the temperance of protesters and was later transformed to reflect the old flag of Belarus. – white with a red stripe – can be seen hanging on many windows in the city.
A chain of protests in Minsk was almost two miles (3.2 km) long. Passing cars often honk their horn to show their support.
In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Maria Kolesnikova – the last of the three women to become the faces of the opposition still in the country – wore a white suit when she said she believes the The clash about election results is disputed signaling. the decline of Lukashenko’s presidency.
The trio – Kolesnikova, Svetlana Tikhanovskay and Veronika Tsepkalo – joined forces to take over Lukashenko in the election after some opposition candidates were banned from running or jailed. Lukashenko dismissed the trio as “poor girls” in his annual speech in his union speech last week, and said he wouldn’t “give away the country.”
But the women seem to be greatly supported. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign protests saw a significant number of voters even in small Belarusian towns not known for their protest activity. About 63,000 people attended the biggest event in Minsk in July – the biggest rally in the past decade.
Independent monitoring group “Honest People” said according to their data, Tikhanovskay – who stands for the imprisoned husband – won at least 80 polling stations across Belarus in Sunday’s vote. Japan, causing many people to request a recount.
Tikhanovskay and Tsepkalo said they were forced to leave Belarus after the election because of threats from the government. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign told CNN on Sunday that nine people involved in the campaign were arrested and her decision to leave was in part to free her colleagues.
‘I’m not bloodthirsty’
Lukashenko announced earlier this week that the protests were initiated by “foreign puppets” and added that law enforcement would not step back and maintain that he still received broad support. cobble.
However, the charges of torture seem to have sparked public outrage at the government.
On Thursday, thousands gathered in Zhodzina, a surrounding town outside of Minsk, where one of the main arrests is located 50 km (31 miles) away. Videos from the event showed people chanting “Release!” and leave! “- a voice clearly directed at Lukashenko.
Some of the country’s military and police officers also appear to turn their backs on Lukashenko and show support for the opposition. A man named Evgeny Novitski posted on Instagram showing his brother – a former special forces officer – throwing his uniform in a trash can, saying he was no longer proud of his work. again.
“Hello everyone! I took an oath to my people, and looking at what’s happening in Minsk right now, I can’t be proud of where I served, and so I can’t keep up. This uniform is at home too “. said the former officer.
Another video posted by Belarusian television station Nexta shows a police officer named Ivan Kolos saying he refuses to obey a “criminal order”. He urged colleagues not to point guns at moderate people and to stay with them instead. He said that he would take orders from Tikhanovskaya, not from Lukashenko.
The growing outcry prompted some Belarus authorities to apologize late on Thursday, a reversal of their earlier rhetoric promising a stern response to protesters.
“I want to take full responsibility and humanely apologize to these people … I’m not a bloodthirsty person and I don’t want any violence,” Belarus’s Interior Minister Yuri Karaev said in an interview with a state television channel. ONT.
Karaev also mentioned the use of force against journalists by saying that he is “against any act of violence against journalists, but this doesn’t mean you need to climb between the two.” side, don’t go into it! “
Lukashenko’s longtime ally and speaker of the Belarusian Senate Natalya Kochanova also released a televised statement on behalf of the President calling on the people of Belarus to “stop” and “stop self-destruction”.
“Less than a week ago, presidential elections were held in the Republic of Belarus. People made their choices. But everything that followed was an unprecedented attempt to destroy something.” that we are always proud of – our peaceful lives, “says Kochanova.
“We all don’t need to fight, we don’t need war. Minsk is always quiet and calm,” Kochanova said. “The Chairman listened to the working class and directed to investigate all the facts of the arrests that have occurred in recent days. Intensive work is underway today, more so One thousand people have been released under the obligation not to participate in unauthorized events. “