Belarus : our undercover investigation into mass police violence

In Belarus, large, peaceful demonstrations challenged the official results of the 9 August, 2020 presidential election. This popular movement was met with unprecedented violence by the security forces. A few days into the repression, a team of lawyers from the Russian human rights group Committee Against Torture, a member of the OMCT SOS-Torture Network, went to Minsk to investigate the abuses and litigate cases. During almost three months, they worked undercover to document shocking cases of brutality and even torture. Interview of the team leader, Dmitry Kazakov.

You worked in a foreign country, investigating violations that were (and are) still ongoing. What were the main challenges for your team?

Being foreigners was a risk factor. Russia is a neighbour and friend of Belarus, but still a different country. By the time we arrived in Minsk, several Russian journalists, who were referred to by the regime as “opposition journalists”, had been detained and deported.

We were ready to face the same fate. For several days, the feeling was “Ok, we managed to work here for another day, lucky us!”. An uncomfortable sensation. But when you concentrate on the work at hand and talk to dozens of victims and witnesses of human rights violations, there’s not much time to feel uncomfortable about yourself.

More importantly, there was the question of trust. For most Belarusians, we were obscure “human rights defenders from Russia”. And by the time we arrived, people had started fearing not only the heavy-handed repression by law enforcement, but also provocations from undercover agents. Fortunately, we knew colleagues from various Belarusian non-governmental organisations. They connected us to the people we wanted to interview and vouched for us.

Another major challenge was to adapt our usual methodology of investigating human rights violations to a different country. The legislations of Russia and Belarus are very similar, but there are still a number of differences. Even small differences have a strong impact when it comes to actually litigating cases. We had to quickly adapt our methodology to a new reality, country and legal system. It was a remarkable experience.

Did your expectations match the situation you witnessed? Were there any major surprises?

We knew that massive human rights violations had taken place in Belarus in August 2020. But it really hits you when you see a list with hundreds of names, when you read their testimonies and when you get in touch with dozens of victims and witnesses.

We had never dealt with human rights violations on such a scale. According to official data, between August 9-13, some 7000 people were arrested for participating in unauthorised rallies. At least 1000 to 1500 people were subjected to torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement agents during arrest and in custody. The numbers become even more impressive if we include, as a separate violation, the appalling detention conditions during arrest.

We had planned to only work on a few applications. In fact though, the 13 cases we’ve investigated are illustrative of hundreds of others. The outcomes of our investigation could easily be extrapolated to the many testimonies of police violence that were not thoroughly investigated.

We quickly understood that we wouldn’t be able to finish our work in two weeks, as initially planned. We could collect the main evidence for some of the victims, but there was no way we could start the legal work. It also took us much more time than foreseen to find local lawyers to work with. This was due to a number of reasons, including the fact that several members of the profession were arrested or deprived of their licences.

This is how our two-week mission turned into an almost three-month endeavour.

You are a seasoned investigator into cases of torture in Russia. What touched you the most in Belarus?

Victims of police violence have very different profiles: various ages, professions, gender. But all those we spoke to in Belarus had one thing in common: they were extremely shocked by the cruelty and inhumanity of the treatment they were subjected to by those who were supposed to be their protectors. One of the most touching things was that every victim or witness we talked to told us: “Thank you for your work and take care!”

What was – and is - really shocking on the other hand is the reaction of the authorities in the face of the brutal behaviour of law enforcement agents. Their most common response was denial. In a video, you can see a woman walking and filming with her phone, suddenly a policeman hits her in the face with his fist. The authorities would say “That was just self-defence, the policeman thought the woman was dangerous”.

All such episodes just make you think that Belarus authorities live in their own fictional world. And of course, they use mass media to make that world seem real.

In Russia you won cases at the European Court of Human Rights and got over 150 policemen jailed for torture*. What differences do you see between this successful modus operandi and your work in Belarus?

The policy in Belarus is straightforward: no official shall be punished for the violence and torture committed on citizens. By early September 2020, about 1,800 complaints had been filed for police violence and ill-treatment. To date, the Investigative Committee of Belarus has not opened any criminal cases.

The Investigative Committee’s officials do not only refuse to hold an effective investigation into complaints of torture and other degrading treatment. They also deny victims the right to legal assistance by preventing lawyers from entering the proceedings on behalf of the victims.

Right after the New Year holidays in 2021, the Parliament of Belarus accepted amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code that allow the Investigative Committee to suspend the pre-investigative verification stage almost without any time limit. That is why the Belarus Investigative Committee hasn’t held any effective investigations. There are much less opportunities to file a complaint against the Investigative Committee’s officials than should be the case and the Prosecutor’s office is de facto extremely weak. Finally, the European Court of Human Rights has no jurisdiction as Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe.

As a result, lawyers and human rights defenders have almost no impact on the effectiveness of the investigations.

Tough as it is to obtain effective investigations on torture and ill-treatment in Russia, our work in Belarus was even harder.

What, if anything, gives you hope for Belarus?

Our hope lies in the people themselves. During our work we’ve met a lot of extremely brave and courageous Belarusians, who are really tired of what happens in their country. They cannot go back to the way things were before August 2020. I wish them to maintain their faith, their hope and their strength.

*CAT Russia has set up a parallel system, called “public inquiry”. As soon as the organisation receives any information relating to acts of torture or other serious human rights violation, it records it as evidence. Then begins long-term, sustained and painstaking work by experts, so that the victims can obtain justice. As a result, more than 150 police officers have been convicted of torture and imprisoned. In addition, CAT Russia saved 50 lives, rehabilitated more than 500 victims of torture, and encouraged the authorities to dismiss over 200 investigators who were not doing their job. This form of public control of law enforcement abuses has been adopted by many NGOs in Russia and other countries from the former Soviet bloc.

For more information on the results of the investigation, read Corridor of Truncheons, the joint CAT Russia – OMCT report on police violence and denial of justice in Belarus.

See also our submission to the UN Committee Against Torture Contribution to the List of Issues Prior to the Submission of the Sixth Periodic Report of Belarus

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