When big street protests broke out in Belarus after a disputed August 9 election, security forces seemingly doubled down with a “crack down first, ask questions later” approach that has left demonstrators with permanent injuries and which is still being employed to this day.
The first week of protests was marked by extreme police brutality as thousands of demonstrators were rounded up, according to rights watchdogs. Detainees told of being subjected to torture at holding centers and jails, and reports of security forces beating protesters and firing rubber and even live bullets at peaceful protesters were common.
Maria Zaytsava was seriously injured on the first night of the protests that began after polls closed in the presidential vote, which followed a wave of rallies nationwide in support of opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
The 19-year-old — who had traveled from Homel to Minsk and joined the mass of demonstrators who gathered as it became clear that long-ruling President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would claim a landslide win — suffered a broken eardrum from her close encounter with a stun grenade and sustained multiple wounds from rubber bullets, including one that left a hole where her temple used to be.
Zaytsava has been hospitalized ever since, and said that while her head wound was “stitched up pretty well and almost completely healed,” she was still dealing with stubborn shooting injuries to her thigh.
“I had two surgeries to remove dead tissue because rubber bullets cause necrosis,” Zaytsava told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, on September 9. “This is not only true for me; many victims of the rallies had such problems.”
Firsthand accounts from victims of police violence support Zaytsava’s claims. And fresh accusations against the police by a leader of the protests suggest that no one in opposition to Lukashenka is safe from the continued use of heavy-handed tactics.
Maryya Kalesnikava, an opposition leader who was abducted by masked men on the streets of Minsk on September 8, has said in a court filing that security officers subsequently placed a bag over her head and threatened her life as they tried to force her to leave Belarus.
The 38-year-old Kalesnikava thwarted the attempt at the Ukraine border by reportedly ripping her passport up into little pieces. Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Lyudmila Kazak, announced on September 10 that her client was seeking legal action against the Belarusian authorities over her treatment, while a group of rights organizations have decried her continued detention as illegal and “politically motivated.”
Sixteen-year-old Mikita Sidarovich, who was detained along with a group of friends in the Western city of Hrodna on August 12, told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service on September 9 that they were beaten and mocked by police, who marked their faces with green paint.
Police only recently came for Nastya Dudina, nearly a month after the university student was hospitalized for injuries inflicted on her by riot police in Minsk on August 9.
Her mother told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service on September 9 that Nastya’s leg was hit by shrapnel from a device thrown by police.
“The riot policeman kicked her in the back and ordered her to lie down. Then somehow grabbed her skin, and scolded and pushed her,” Nina Dudina said. “Nastya’s leg was covered with blood, people helped her leave. Afterward we called an ambulance and took my daughter to a military hospital.”
Nastya spent three days in the hospital, and was unable to recall the incident to a visiting investigator due to the effects of anesthesia.
But in the early morning of September 7, Nina Dudina said, the investigator and two other individuals in plain clothes came calling.
They took Nastya in for questioning and shortly after noon, more investigators came to search the family home. Clothes worn by Nastya on August 9 were seized, and later investigators called to say that she had been transferred to a detention center.
“My daughter was a victim and a witness, and is now a criminal,” Nina Dudina said. “There will still be a trial. Maybe she’ll be sentenced to one day [in jail], maybe something else. I don’t know. ”
‘A Duel Between Good And Evil’
Looking back at the beginning of the protests, prominent rights activist Ales Byalyatski told the news site Palitviazni.info that “there was an order for violence and torture.”
“We can say that today in Belarus there is a duel between Good and Evil,” Byalyatski, who heads the human rights group Vyasna, said on September 9.
“It should be noted that Evil is well-armed and possesses the mechanisms of the state. They have weapons, courts, and law enforcement agencies,” he added. “And on the part of Good — only peaceful protests that gather hundreds of thousands of people, which is unprecedented in the country. And this struggle continues.”
As August wound down but protests continued, Amnesty International (AI) provided a dire assessment of the Belarusian authorities’ harsh response to demonstrations against the official results that gave Lukashenka more than 80 percent of the vote in an election that protesters say was rigged in the authoritarian ruler’s favor.
“The Belarusian authorities have to date refused to engage in a dialogue with the protesters, nor, apparently, have they taken steps to investigate the massive human rights violations committed by the police during the first few days of the post-election protests,” AI’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Marie Struthers, said in an August 31 statement demanding that the Belarusian police be held accountable for their actions.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and Current Time