Pro-democracy protesters in Belarus are being “stripped naked, beaten, and threatened with rape”, according to testimonies collected by Amnesty International and local human rights groups.
This comes as thousands of demonstrators in Belarus across more than 25 towns and cities continue to protest the results of last Sunday’s presidential election, which saw the country’s two-decade-long ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, re-elected with 80 percent of the vote in what many consider to be a rigged election. In the days leading up to the vote, the capital city of Minsk was shut down as authorities prepared for the inevitable backlash.
In response to the protesters, Lukashenko has followed through on his promise to violently crack down on any dissenters, using riot police and both uniformed and plainclothes officers to attack civilians. Additionally, the internet was shut down for several days, though the government claimed it was an accident. Over 7,000 people have been arrested and at least two people have died in police custody.
“It is now becoming increasingly clear that the bloody scenes on the streets of Belarus are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in a statement. “Former detainees told us that detention centres have become torture chambers, where protesters are forced to lie in the dirt while police kick and beat them with truncheons. They described being stripped naked and subjected to sadistic beatings while listening to the screams of other victims.”
One former detainee, Katsyaryna Novikava, details how the police confiscated her passport and apartment keys before forcing her to share a four-person prison cell with 20 other women. For the next 34 hours, she says, the women slept on the floor with nothing to eat or drink, while officers threatened some of them with rape. Katsyarna claims she wasn’t even told that she was arrested for “participating in an unauthorised rally” until 22 hours after she was detained. When she was eventually released, the police did not return her passport or keys, with one police officer allegedly warning her that “We have your data – if we see you here again, we will kill you.”
Video evidence first obtained by the Minsk-basked Viasna human rights group appears to support first-hand accounts of prisoners being forced to lie face down in courtyards for hours or kneel on all fours as officers beat them indiscriminately.
In addition to the accounts that human rights groups are aware of, largely from detainees who have been released, Amnesty estimates that hundreds of unaccounted for demonstrators have been rounded up and are currently being imprisoned indefinitely, with family members struggling to work out exactly where they are being held.
“Detained peaceful protesters and bystanders are being held in detention incommunicado in violation of the most basic procedural rules, in complete disregard of their fundamental human rights,” Struthers added. “In numerous reported instances, individuals go missing for days on end, which amounts to enforced disappearance.”
Still, there are few signs that the demonstrations are slowing down, with many hopeful that the increased spotlight on the government’s abuses will put pressure on Lukanhesko to resign, ending his 26-year rule.