Lukashenko’s government had already been accused of responding to the protests with disproportionate force and violence, but allegations of ill-treating people behind bars have sparked renewed public outrage against the government.
A woman named Olesya told CNN that 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 along with other women before being ransacked at a detention center. Olesya, who refused to give her last name for security reasons, said she was then put in a small cell with 17 other women. Everyone was given a water bottle and no food and had to sleep on the floor or a small table.
The guards regularly blocked access to water to silence them. They also refused to give medical attention to one of the women who was injured by a rubber bullet.
Olesya said she spent about 1
“They would put four men in a five-foot-wide cell, three standing, but they let the fourth crawl in like a dog and stand on his knees,” she told Olesya.
Olesya said she kept coming back to the detention center for information about her partner and to help others.
“It was very scary to wait outside, we could hear them being beaten, they were moaning, they were screaming,” she said. “They stormed away from there, crazy-eyed and semi-conscious … they just ran in the direction the guards had told them to go and also told them not to turn to us for help To come home and threatened they would reinstate them in prison. “
Hundreds of people have gathered at the Okrestina detention center in Minsk over the past two days to track down their relatives and friends who were arrested during the protests. Some have been missing for days, according to CNN, as authorities often fail to disclose the whereabouts of detainees and prohibit the transfer of food, water or medicine. Around 6,700 people were arrested across the country on Thursday, according to the Interior Ministry.
Ivan, who also refused to divulge his last name, told CNN that while looking for a friend at the detention center early Thursday he saw a young man with a broken arm and leg leave the building.
“People are beaten and tortured from the moment they are held in the street,” said Ivan. “Then they are taken to the local police station, beaten there, and taken here after a day or two, and the beatings and tortures continue.”
Several other people have shared similar reports of ill-treatment in government detention. Reports and pictures of injuries to the detainees have also appeared on social media. The Belarusian Union of Journalists said in a statement that it has recorded dozen cases of violence against journalists while several remain in detention.
The Russian independent news agency Znak.com published a report by one of its journalists, Nikita Telizhenko, who reported in Minsk and said he had spent 16 hours with several protesters who had been grabbed from the streets and forced to face down to lay in pools of blood, with some men piled on top of each other.
“The most brutal beatings happened everywhere: hits, screams, screams and screams from everywhere,” Telizhenko said. “I felt that some of the detainees had broken bones – hands, legs, spikes – because they howled in pain with the slightest movement.”
Telizhenko says he was eventually released following an intervention by the Russian embassy that helped release several journalists and return to Russia.
A change in tactics
Despite these brutal raids, the opposition has shown no sign of retreat. But it changed strategy and tactics.
Thousands of mainly peaceful protesters clutching white flowers and balloons lined the streets of Minsk on Thursday as part of a more decentralized protest. Across the country, women are forming so-called “solidarity chains” to demand an end to the violence and release those detained. White ribbons, bracelets and shirts have become symbols of the movement, a color that initially represents the peacefulness of the protesters and later transforms into the old Belarusian flag – white with a red stripe – that hangs on many windows in the city.
A chain of demonstrators in Minsk was almost 3.2 kilometers long. Cars passing by often honked their horns to show their support.
During an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Maria Kolesnikova – the last of the three women to face the country’s opposition – wore a white suit when she said she believed the clashes over the controversial election results were a signal of decline from Lukashenko’s presidency.
The trio – Kolesnikova, Svetlana Tikhanovskay and Veronika Tsepkalo – competed together against Lukashenko after several opposition candidates were either excluded from the race or imprisoned. Lukashenko dismissed the trio as “poor girls” in his annual union speech last week and said he would not “betray” the country.
But the women seemed to enjoy considerable support. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign rallies showed significant turnout even in small Belarusian towns not known for their protest activities. Around 63,000 people attended the largest event in Minsk in July – and thus the largest demonstration in the last decade.
The independent monitoring group “Honest People” said that Tikhanovskay, who stood up for her imprisoned husband, claimed to have won Sunday’s vote in at least 80 polling stations across Belarus, prompting many to call for a recount.
Tikhanovskay and Tsepkalo say they were evicted from Belarus after the election due to government threats. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign told CNN on Sunday that nine people linked to the campaign had been arrested, and their decision to leave the campaign was made in part to free their peers.
“I’m not a bloodthirsty person”
Lukashenko alleged earlier this week that the protests were initiated by “foreign puppeteers”, adding that law enforcement would not back down, claiming he still had broad support.
However, the allegations of torture appear to have fueled public anger against the government.
On Thursday, thousands gathered in Zhodzina, a city 50 kilometers outside Minsk, where one of the main prisoners is located. Videos from the event showed people saying “Release!” and “Go!” – a song apparently directed against Lukashenko.
Some of the country’s military and police officers also appear to have turned against Lukashenko, showing support for the opposition. A video posted on Instagram by a man named Evgeny Novitski shows his brother – a former special officer – throwing his uniform in a trash can and saying he is no longer proud of his job.
“Hi everyone! I took an oath to my people, and when I look at what’s going on in Minsk right now, I can’t be proud of where I’ve served and that’s why I can’t keep this uniform at home anymore.” says the former officer.
Another video from Belarusian TV station Nexta shows a police officer named Ivan Kolos who refuses to obey “criminal orders”. He urged his colleagues not to point guns at peaceful people and instead be with them. He said he would take orders from Tikhanovskaya, not Lukashenko.
The growing outcry prompted some Belarusian authorities to apologize late Thursday. This is a reversal of their earlier rhetoric, which promises a violent response to the protesters.
“I would like to take full responsibility and apologize to these people in a humane way … I am not a bloodthirsty person and I do not want violence,” said Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Karaev in an interview with a state television channel ONT.
Karaev also addressed the use of violence against journalists by saying that he was “against all violence against journalists, but that doesn’t mean you have to climb between the two sides, not in the middle!”
Lukashenko’s longtime ally and spokesman for the Belarusian Senate, Natalya Kochanova, made a televised statement on behalf of the President calling on Belarusians to “stop” and “stop self-destruct”.
“Less than a week ago, the Republic of Belarus held presidential elections. The people made their choice. But everything that happened next is an unprecedented attempt to destroy what we have always been proud of – our peaceful lives,” said Kochanova.
“We all don’t need a fight, we don’t need a war. Minsk has always been calm and relaxed,” said Kochanova. “The president heard the opinion of work collectives and instructed them to investigate all the facts of the detentions that have taken place in the past few days. Today more than a thousand people have been released under the obligation not to take part in unauthorized events.”