This article is part of the Let The World Hear Project, which is a collaboration between Stockholm Free World Forum’s webzine Säkerhetsrådet and a number of Belarusian volunteers. Together we have gathered stories from victims of the dictatorship regime in 2020. The world must know what happened.
Read more about the project here.
This is the story of 25-year-old Sergei and a group of political activists living together. The police fabricated a story about drug trafficking in order to be able to arrest them.
Part 1. The morning started with something else than cup of coffee
6 August, 2020
It was around 7 am. I woke up from a loud and persistent knocking on the door, accompanied by something indistinctly said about the police. I got dressed and went downstairs. I found one of us, Yegor, arguing through the window with the police officers who wanted to enter our house based on that ”they’ve received information that we are hiding foreign citizens”. Yegor said that without a search warrant they have nothing to do with us. The officers said that there will be a warrant, adding angrily afterwards something along the lines of ”only with that warrant we’ll be looking for weapons and drugs.”
By now everyone had already woken up and started discussing what to do. It’s clear that the police weren’t here to just check our IDs or look for foreign citizens. We looked carefully out of the windows. There was outdoor surveillance around the house – several very characteristic minivans with tinted windows. After a short discussion, Vlad finally decided to leave the house. He headed towards the bus stop while the rest of us observed. He barely managed to make it 50 meters when two athletic-built men suddenly rushed towards him, twisted his arms behind his back and dragged him towards the inner yard of a five-story block of flats just across the street. We all saw it and heard him scream. The situation was sickening.
We gathered again to figure out how to escape, as we were trapped and our arrest seemed just a matter of time. Since the front door was under surveillance, we had to find other ways to get out unnoticed. As a result, while some of us were drafting an escape plan, the others quickly cleaned and encrypted computers, got rid of potentially dangerous information, and logged out from administration panels and accounts.
We then compiled an escape plan with the code name ”trap”. According to the plan, we had to descend through the balcony at the back of the house by holding onto the TV antenna cable and the window bars, and then crawl under the fences separating us from the neighbouring yard on the other side of the residence area. Veronica and I finished packing the last necessities and set off. On the go I called a friend and asked him to pick us up. I sent him the pick-up location, drew up the route and then we began the evacuation.
Getting down from the second floor balcony might seem simple, but not when you’re terrified of heights. For Veronica, it turned out to be a real challenge. While I was loading the backpacks, she just was sitting on the ground sobbing. After encouraging her a little, we began to evacuate the animals as well. Having pushed the cat through the window bars, we just had to climb over the fence to the neighbors.
In the meantime, my friend wrote that he had arrived at the agreed spot and asked what to do next. I sent another geolocation in response and asked him to drive up there. Then we shared a cigarette and waited. When the car came, we quickly jumped into it and left. We were glad that everything seemed to work out.
But it didn’t. After driving a few hundred meters we noticed that we were being followed. We began to cruise the city, taking strange and illogical routes, driving through courtyards, trying to shake off the followers in every way possible. They stayed close behind, following us diligently and sometimes completely ignoring the traffic rules. We realised that it wouldn’t be that easy to get rid of them so we decided to make a distracting move. We drove into the parking lot of a shopping center and looked around. We saw their car park a little further away. They got out and slowly began to surround our car. There was no time to think. I left the bag with my things in the car, went out and headed to the mall. In the reflection of my phone screen I saw that two people were following me. I got into a store to buy something to drink and cigarettes for the road. With the purchase made, I left the cash register and looked around. It appeared to be clear. I saw on Telegram (ed. note; a messenger app) that the “tail” seemed to have vanished as well as the new coordinates of where to go. I created a route on the map and headed to the exit when….
“Young man, please, follow us” – two huge riot policemen dressed in civilian clothes came up to me from behind the moment I exited the shopping center. They grabbed me by the arms and led me towards their car. “On what grounds am I being detained?” I asked, “because you are suspected of drug trafficking” they said. And that’s when I realised that things were going to get bad.
They put me in a black minivan with tinted windows, and we silently drove somewhere. We arrived at Chigladze street and parked not far away from our house. Five minutes later two new people in civilian clothes showed up. It was obvious that they were in charge of the whole operation. They began to interrogate me about who is doing what, how many people were at home, how to open the front door and so on. They tried to find the keys but didn’t find them.
In the end, they decided to check my phone. At first they asked in a nice way, then hinted at trouble, and after that they simply handcuffed me in the “swallow” position (ed. note; hands handcuffed to the legs behind the back) and left me lying like that in the car “to think about my behavior”. Meanwhile, they began to discuss how to get inside the house and finally decided to climb up and get in through the balcony. They presented the plan to the superiors, the superiors approved, and a couple of them disappeared in the back of the yard. Within literally five minutes they open the front doors from the inside. They released me from the ”swallow” and we entered the house.
Back home I saw Yegor, surrounded by agents. With red eyes and a look of despair on his face it was clear that he had been physically abused. The agents immediately took me to the kitchen so that I wouldn’t see anyone and left one policeman to guard me. I heard agents running around the house, turning things upside down, looking for something in all the rooms. The preliminary search was carried out not only without the presence of attesting witnesses, but also without our presence, which in principle gave them the opportunity to freely bring anything into the house and hide it somewhere. No one would be able to prove it. But we were kind of lucky. While all this was happening, the riot police found two drunk elderly men in the street, brought them to us as attesting witnesses, and began to inform them that this house would now be searched “on the grounds of the suspicion of drug trafficking”.
The senior agent read us the decree that we demanded in the morning, but it was no longer about suspecting us of harbouring foreign citizens. Instead, we were suspected of drug trafficking. When all the formalities with the attesting witnesses were over, they began to search me and Yegor. They confiscated all personal belongings – phones, wallets, credit cards, a USB flash drive… they began to dig in our pockets… and then at one moment, I felt that something slipped from the agents hand and fell inside my pocket. My life flashed before my eyes, but I quickly pulled myself together. I loudly drew everyone’s attention to what had just happened, carefully took off my shorts and gave it to the agent so as not to get into the pocket on my own, and leave my fingerprints and biological material on a potential ”package with drugs.” In the end, it turned out to be a binocular cap.
In the meantime, the guys from the investigation committee turned the whole house upside down, seizing everything that could be seized – hard drives, storage media, telephones… they also found some alternative national symbols and a red-and-white flag. To top it all off, they brought in a dog to do the final search. At that moment an acquaintance of ours, Alexander, appeared at the front door as he came to pay us a visit. He was immediately put with his face against the wall and searched. When the search was over, we were all handcuffed, put in a minivan and taken away for further examination to identify whether we were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
After the examination, we were taken to the District Department of Internal Affairs.
At the police station, the Investigative Committee immediately took over our case. They started asking about drugs, claiming that they knew we were involved in something… they started asking about the activists, who does what, where we live, and so on. Then the conversation topic switched to anarchism, political activism, political views… The questions were posed in such a way that it was important to watch every word very carefully. An imprudent answer could become proof of something that never happened. In the end, when the agents of the Investigative Committee hadn’t received any useful information, the head of the police station took me to his office and asked:
– Do you understand that you are at the drug control department, that there is plenty of evidence material and what kind of consequences it can have for you?
– I understand it perfectly.
– Then why are you answering the questions in the wrong way?
– Why do you think so?
– Since I know that you aren’t saying something, you speak very carefully and it seems to me that you have something to hide.
– I tell you only the information which I am sure of. In other cases, when I’m not sure of the reliability of the information, I prefer to remain silent or say that I don’t know because I am an honest person who abides by the law. I don’t give false testimony because of the fact that there is a liability for it under the law.
After this move, I was taken out into the corridor and left to wait while all the others went through the same interrogation procedure. After that we were persistently offered to sign papers stating that we were detained and suspected of drug trafficking or something like that, I don’t remember the exact content. They promised that they would let us go after that.
It was almost 10 pm. Another shift came, and some kind of fuss began. As a result, after 10 minutes we all received two identical protocols – disorderly conduct and disobedience – and after signing those, they took us to the isolation ward.
Before entering, we were searched again. This was done by a young and very disrespectful member of staff who kept threatening to beat us. He treated us like animals.
We were detained in different cells, in essence concrete boxes without ventilation, with a single ledge in the form of a 60 centimeters wide bench. As soon as we got in, I heard some noise in the corridor, apparently they brought someone else in after us… After a while I could hear yelling from another cell, someone screamed that a man had a dissected head and was bleeding. No one paid attention to it. I had no power left so I just lay down and passed out.
Part 2. The trial
7 August, 2020
In the morning they woke us up, took us out of our cells and brought us to a room to participate in the trial. The trial was miserable – in the office room there was a laptop in front of you, on the screen you observed the judge and from time to time you could see what was happening in the courtroom. An agent sat behind the laptop and watched me very closely.
The hearing started in a traditional way – introduce yourself, answer questions… When the turn came to petitions, I made a petition to invalidate the signatures on the protocols, because they were made under pressure. I also stated that I would like to, on record, tell the court what really happened. I told the court the story that I described above, with detailed comments and answers to the judge’s questions. The court retired for a break, and I had to wait in the office with the agents.
After the break, the court asked the witnesses to speak. I was accused of cursing, waving my arms, harassing people as well as disobeying the police officers who tried to detain me. The witnesses were police officers, a lieutenant colonel and a major who recounted what was recorded in the fake protocol word by word. According to them, I had sworn at them and resisted the arrest. Their arrogance and blatant lies made me angry, so I made two more petitions – firstly, about the removal of witnesses due to them giving false testimony and the inability to at least somehow confirm and prove it, and secondly, about allowing the witnesses to give the false testimony
Naturally, these ”dangerous” petitions were denied. Then the judge, without a twinge of conscience, completely ignored my testimony, my petitions and the petitions of my lawyer, sentenced me to 13 days in jail.
After the trial we were transported to a temporary detention center in Minsk. There were no mattresses, the lights in the cell were never turned off. We had to sleep on a metal surface, and later on, on benches when more people were added to the same cell and there wasn’t enough space. They didn’t feed us, even though it had already been two days since the arrest. We found some left over bread and divided it among us.
At some point they came and said ”take your stuff and get out”. We were taken out to the yard and loaded into an avtozak (ed. note; wagon for transportation of prisoners). Me and two others were loaded in a cell approximately 100 x 60 cm in size with the ceiling of a person’s height. And then we drove away, somewhere.
Part 3. The Zhodzina prison.
8 August, 2020
We drove for a long time. The people in the avtozak expressed the most incredible assumptions where they were taking us, tried to ask the guards, but they only replied with ”You will soon find out.” The guards constantly cursed, didn’t allow us to talk to each other, threatened us with pepper spray or stun guns. They discussed what kind of criminals we were and what would happen to us in prison. From the constant shaking, lack of ventilation and a huge number of people in a confined space, some of us started to feel unwell. One man’s heart started to hurt, he asked the guards for medicine, and in the end, after 10-15 minutes of harsh arguing, he was given some kind of pill without any clarification of what it was.
Naturally, he didn’t take the unknown drug, and the problem with his heart persisted. Finally, he was told that “It’s easier if you die, then it’s just to fill out three pieces of paper and that’s it.”
Upon arrival at Zhodzina prison, getting out of the avtozak was not an easy business. From the constant rocking in the wagon and lack of fresh air, I got dizzy and my vision blurry, but somehow I got to where we were ordered by taking support against the wall. Then again, the search and the examination procedures, up to the point where you had to strip naked and squat to make sure that you had nothing hidden in your butt. And then finally, we were sorted into cells.
It was quite a warm reception in the cell by the other inmates. They immediately started me asking about the news, what was happening outside, in the world and in Belarus, who was detained among the bloggers and activists, where they had been taken to. I updated them. Then they showed me where to settle down.
In general, at first glance, the conditions in the prison seemed to be much better than in the detention center in Minsk. There were mattresses and linen on the beds, there were some books, you were able to lie down and sleep freely during the day. Since at the time of arrival there were only eight people in the cell, there was enough room for everyone, and the first night passed in relative comfort. The friendly and positive atmosphere in the cell was encouraging. All the inmates were detained on political grounds, and therefore, all of them seemed intelligent and calm.
On a couple of occasions, people from the neighbouring cells were dragged out in the corridor and beaten with truncheons. One man couldn’t bear what was happening so he swallowed the handle of a spoon and tried to cut his wrists with fragments of a broken mirror in order to get from the prison to the hospital. After these actions he was beaten again and placed in our cell in an attempt to scare us. It turned out that he was an addict and got arrested for theft. The guards thought that he would cause confusion and chaos among us, but the effect was the opposite. He calmed down and we pushed for him to get a bandage. Later, he was relocated, possibly to the hospital, or perhaps to another cell.
The leisure in the cell wasn’t very diverse, but much more entertaining than in the detention center in Minsk. We were able to get some sleep, read books, talk to other inmates, as well as ”hunt for the guard” in order to get fire for our cigarettes. We started to truly appreciate the latter when new inmates were added to our cell, adding us up to about 30 people. At that point it turned out that ventilation didn’t work at all, since it became very stuffy in the cell. At the request to turn on the ventilation, the answer was that ”everything is turned on, but it may have become clogged with pigeons” or similar nonsense. But when we were smoking, the ventilation was somehow magically turned on for a while, giving us an influx of fresh air.
The guards probably realized this and stopped giving us the lighter. It became simply unbearable, and as a result, the whole crowd began to develop plans on how to get fire. In the end, we got to the point that with the help of a pencil, ties from a face mask and a spoon, we built an installation to create fire with friction and ended up drilling a rather large hole in the table with a pencil. We were endlessly glad, but the pencils were not unlimited, and they lasted only a couple times. But this, as it turned out, was enough for the guards to realize that we would do anything to get what we want, and they started giving us lighter again.
Sleeping in such cramped conditions was quite difficult. Some slept on the beds, some under the beds, and those who didn’t have enough space and blankets had to use the floor or the benches. It was tough, but we endured. We slept in shifts to make it tolerable.
As for the sanitary conditions… they were terrible. We weren’t given any hygiene items. All we had was toilet paper and a tube of toothpaste. We had to brush our teeth with our fingers. When we asked for a broom or any other cleaning equipment, the requests were refused. I had to tear apart my T-shirt and use it as rags to keep the cell more or less clean.
Over time, we began to notice that the attitude towards us got better step by step. At first, they stopped dragging people out in the corridor and beating them. Later, they began to treat us a bit more like people, not like animals, with at least a pinch of compassion. And finally, they started to let people leave. My turn to get out was on 14 August, in the evening. I was met by friends and we headed towards Minsk. This concludes the story for now.
During these eight days in prison I met many cool guys and in general, I have a strong feeling that the people that are put behind bars for all sorts of trivialities and far-fetched accusations are the best people of the nation.
The story was originally recorded and translated by Anastacia S.