23-year-old Danya * was sitting with his brother and wife in Minsk’s Independence Square on Monday, when men dressed in black tied them to a truck.
The trio wearing white ribbons, the symbol of protesting the re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, has been denounced as fraud by many. Official election results, announced a day earlier and disputed by protesters, showed Lukashenko took 80.23% of the vote, while this opposition challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, received only 9.9%.
The men forced the group to remove their ribbons, and told them that if they showed up on the plaza again, they would be jailed immediately.
“When they arrested us, I didn̵7;t understand why and of course I was scared,” she told the Guardian via a communication app. “They kept us for about 20 minutes, then let us go, but my brother said ‘Belarus is alive’, and he was captured and taken away. Then he called and told me to go to the bus stop. The men there, and they took my phone, started looking through the photos and told me I voted for the wrong person. “
Earlier this week, the country’s internet network was shut down, a move the activists said was intended to silence them and prevent them from organizing. Hundreds of users of the VPN and messaging app reached out to the Guardian to respond to comments about their experiences.
“I want everyone to know the truth,” Danya said. “We’re scared to go out and we need any help.”
According to Minsk residents, thousands are still in detention, arrested during peaceful demonstrations against the election results. Many say that the detainees are being tortured, with 20 or even 50 being held in cells designed for just four people. Others said that the detainees had been denied food.
Official figures show 6,000 people were detained on Wednesday morning, but reporters at the scene assumed the number had risen to around 7,000 overnight.
“A lot of people are being arrested,” said Katina *, a lawyer in Minsk who works to support those arrested. There were people who went out to throw the trash, but because they did not have passports, they were detained. We don’t know where they are.
“People are released from prison at four or five in the morning, and their belongings are not returned to them. Volunteers are waiting for them not to get close to the prison or arrest site, or else they will be detained.
“Yesterday, they started to stop and beat and arrest the drivers,” she added. “When they hit people, they are doing it in front of others because they want to spread this fear around.”
Katina is helping to set up a platform for connecting lawyers, working pro bono, to those who have been detained. “For those lawyers, it is a huge risk. Before, they risked their license, now they’re risking their lives, ”she said.
Katina also said that opponents of the election results were massively fired from their work. “Some people have been fired from police and prisons because they refused to carry out orders or start small initiatives. [to help detainees]. A lot of teachers were fired because they refused to sign a protocol regarding election results, ”she said.
“We don’t know how many there are, we think hundreds and thousands. It mainly started after the election, but it would have happened before that if people showed support for the independent candidates ”.
According to those present at the scene, the protests have narrowed as police brutality intensified.
Katina says that on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday people “have hope and confidence in future changes”, but this has gradually diminished. “It was so beautiful, and then they were terrified,” she said.
One of the people “angry and scared” by the events is Anastasia *, who fled Minsk on Tuesday with her husband after her IT corporate office was evacuated after raids on companies. company nearby.
Her colleagues encouraged her to delete all social networks and browsing history, after it was reported that authorities would seize the phone and use Facebook groups or news sites that people visited. Access as evidence to detain them.
Protests broke out around the couple’s downtown apartment. “On Sunday night, after the election results were announced, we saw a lot of people walking into the street. Just walk, it’s done, and the car has honked, ”she said.
“Then we saw the special forces vehicle, the kind of vehicle I had never seen in my life, with huge shields in front to disperse everyone, and then the black cars with no license plates arrived. . We saw the doors open, and the special forces began to dash out of them, and chase the protesters into the streets. One person was chased and beaten up by them and got into the car.
In the window reflection, Anastasia sees explosions, “like fireworks”, and hears gunshots. Like others who spoke to the Guardian, Anastasia said armed squads had reached ambulances to get close to the protesters without suspicion, before jumping out and arresting them.
“They just arrest people, they don’t need a specific reason,” she said. “If they want to do that, they’ll put you in jail. There is no law, the law does not work ”.
For hours on Thursday, Viktar *, who was an independent observer in the elections, stood with hundreds of others on a chain that traveled across the capital. The activists, he said, have linked arms in silent protest.
Viktar said he saw for himself the fraud of the election: at some polling stations, he and his team of observers counted and photographed the number of voters, but when they checked their numbers. They compared with official electoral commission data, hundreds of votes appeared to have been added.
The ballots were also seized by the police, he said, and the votes were changed to votes for Lukashenko. “There is nowhere to help the people of Belarus,” he said. “People are simply intimidated, because nowadays, almost every family has someone who is persecuted in one way or another: beaten, kidnapped, or have seen the act of destruction. This violence lives where they live. “
“I participated in a protest on Wednesday where police fired rubber bullets at residents and threw grenades. There’s a lot of blood, ”he said. “Almost everyone in this area was beaten or escaped.”
At the IT company where he works, three people in his 12th division have been detained, and two are still in prison.
“It’s terrible,” Viktar said. “It’s like a fight.”
* Name has been changed