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Belarus - Vitaly Prokopiev : struggling for air in an overcrowded cell

On August 9th, Belarus votes to elect a new president. Tensions have been mounting for months, with a prominent opposition candidate arrested and his wife, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, running in his stead and drawing large crowds at her political rallies. It seems like an unusually competitive election in a country that has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko for the past 26 years, ever since the office of Belarus president was established.

Many wait outside polling stations to learn who has won. Vitaly Prokopiev, 41, a citizen of Minsk, is one of them. He stands peacefully on the street with his brother and a friend when, around 7:45 pm, he notices a police van approaching.

Kidnapped and detained for made-up reasons

Five law enforcement officers come out of the van and order Vitali, his brother and his friend to come with them. When the men ask what this is about, they are told that explanations will be given on the minibus.

The trio are taken to the Minsk Leninski Burough Board of Internal Affairs and detained, while police draw up reports of their arrest that include imaginary accusations. Beyond that, the men are treated correctly.

+35 in a four-people cell

Things change once they are taken to the detention centre on Okrestina Lane. “When we arrived, there were other vans from which detainees were taken out, recalls Vitali. I saw people kneeling along the fence, they were screaming. It was clear from the sound that they were being beaten with truncheons.”

Vitaly and his companions are taken to cell No 10, designed for four people. By the morning of August 10, 21 more men have been crammed into that space. “They all had signs of beatings on their backs and legs, their knees were bruised. They told us they had been forced to kneel on the pavement for hours with their faces down. If they tried to change position or raise their heads, they would be beaten with batons.”

False statements, beatings and torture

Later that day, the detainees are told that, if they sign the police reports, they can go home. Everyone complies, despite the fact that the reports contain false accusations. Instead of freedom however, the men are ordered to run “face down” and are hit with batons. Vitaly receives severe blows on the back and is transferred to another small cell – no 19 -, with 37 other men. The window is tightly shut and the air quickly becomes stuffy. Women are shouting from the cell next door.

After Vitaly complains loudly about the behaviour of the detaining authorities, the door opens. Three members of OMON, the feared riot police, take him out and beat him badly with truncheons, in the corridor, so the other detainees can hear. Vitaly is then ordered to wipe the blood coming from his nose with his own T-shirt and placed back in the cell.

Two days without food, water or sufficient oxygen

Other detainees start fainting from the lack of air. The guards pour water from a bucket on the men. “It was so hot that a haze started to form in the cell, says Vitaly. We stopped talking altogether so as to save the little air we had”. After a few hours, the small “feeder” in the cell door is partially opened. It’s only two days later, on August 12, that the men receive some food – bread, porridge and tea.

On 14 August, Vitaly could finally go home. During his detention, men had been taken away and new ones brought into cell no 19. Their numbers had constantly remained above 35.

On 15 August he went to a medical facility, where he was diagnosed with bruises of the left shoulder, left and right scapula, abrasions of the left forearm, back, nose, parietal region of the head, and bruised bridge of the nose.

Five days later, Vitaly filed a criminal complaint with the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus. The verification of his complaint, conducted in the Central Office of the agency, has been suspended. No criminal case has been initiated.

Listen to Vitaly’s testimony

For more details on Vitaly’s story, including audio excerpts from his testimony, see this page (in Russian). More information on police violence in our new joint report Corridor of Truncheons.

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