Many Belarusians have met violence and torture at the hands of the police. Those who seek legal redress typically hit a brick wall of official denial.
In Belarus, complaints about police practice are considered by the General Prosecutor’s office, the Investigative Committee, and the Internal Security Directorate of the Interior Ministry. Yet according to the UN Human Rights Committee, only 10 out of 614 reports of acts constituting torture and ill-treatment, received between 2012 and 2015, were subject to criminal investigation. Sometimes administrative and criminal cases are even initiated against the complainants, putting additional pressure on them.
Meanwhile, not all victims are aware of the psychological effects of violence and often fail to see the need for psychological assistance. They may experience extreme agitation, be depressed or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In Belarus, there are no organizations providing psychological assistance to victims of torture.
Belarus is the only country on the European continent that is not a member of the Council of Europe and so is not bound by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. At the international level, Belarusians can only complain about their government to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC). However, to date, Belarus has not abided by a single decision of the UNHRC.
Svetlana Sokolovskaya. Actress, 30, Minsk
On 31 December 2017, Svetlana went out with her boyfriend and three friends to celebrate the New Year in the main square of Minsk. Riot police officers refused to let them into the secured area. A dispute arose, resulting in the arrest of Svetlana’s friends.
With Svetlana’s friends in the van, the riot police officer abruptly slammed the van door, shutting Svetlana’s finger in the door. Then, according to the complaint she filed with police, he hit her on the head with a baton, and she lost consciousness. Doctors later diagnosed concussion.
None of the four surveillance cameras around the square recorded these events. The police deny the use of force. The Investigative Committee did not open a criminal case against the riot police officers. Svetlana has challenged this decision in the prosecutor’s office.
I was just scared I might end up alone on the street at 4 a.m. on New Year’s. That was my first thought – I’m scared.
I shout at the police van driver, “Let me in, let me in!”
With my hat and hood on, I can’t see everything, so when I get hit on the head, I don’t realize who or what hit me. The world goes dark before my eyes, someone picks me up by the arms and shakes me. “Hey, wake up! Are you OK?”
For me, it seems like one second, and I hear Sasha’s voice nearby: “Sveta, get up, get up! The ambulance is on its way.” Another second, and I find myself in the ambulance. I keep regaining consciousness and then passing out again.
Afterwards, the investigator was very kind: smiling, cracking jokes. He said that if I had really been hit by a riot policeman, that would be an egregious case, but that never happened. He promised to investigate as soon as possible, because he, too, had a wife and children, and he was very concerned about such situations. But he eventually concluded that I had fallen down and hit my head.
I feel absolutely no anger, just disappointment. I realized at some point that this [the police and their investigators]was a web of relationships, one common structure. I want to make sure that our guardians – the riot forces and the police – think about the possibility of losing their jobs and depriving their families of food if they hit someone on the head next time. If one person gets away with it, it creates an even greater wave of violence.
Stanislav (surname withheld on request)
On 30 December 2017, two district police officers tortured Stanislav in the building of the District Directorate of Internal Affairs No. 8 in Mogilev, where he had come on a private matter.
He lost consciousness several times while the policemen beat him as he lay on the floor handcuffed, and then they raped him with a police baton. After that, Stanislav became hysterical, he struck a table, the table collapsed, and they charged him with hooliganism. The trial took almost a year. At the end of 2018, the case was dismissed.
Stas had a criminal record and had spent six years in prison. He was released in 2014 and met his future wife. They had a child; Stas got a steady job.
In their testimony, the police said Stas hit his head against the corners of the walls, the doorway, and floor tiles, all by himself.
After local media wrote about his case in the winter of 2018, one of the district police officers resigned from the police force. The Investigative Committee refused to initiate criminal proceedings against the police. At the time of writing, Stas planned to appeal this decision.
I’m coming around, I raise my head.
“What, you again? You woke up?” – and they start all over, knocking my lights out. I pass out again.
I come to my senses; I’m being dragged by my arms and legs. They bring me into an office, the handcuffs are getting tighter. They start lifting me up, and the cuffs cut into my wrists and blood runs down.
He pulled down my pants. He raised his baton for me to see there was a condom on it. Then he started all that – action. I sprawled on the floor, with tears and blood and everything spilling all over it. Then he took it out, wiped it off on my face and said, “That’s it, now you’re down.”
Such things must not be let slide or they will keep happening. If not to me, then to others. Usually, I am a calm, friendly person, but I feel only hatred for these people. If it were up to me, I would have no mercy.
The Investigative Committee very aggressively pushed back against my complaint.
I don’t know how many of them there were in the office, or how long it lasted; I can’t say even roughly, because I blacked out twice; I couldn’t make sense of anything. For a few hours, they ignored my pleas to call an ambulance, I asked, like, five times.
I was lying on the floor until one of the two district police officers came over and said, “Now we’re going to punish you, gloves off.”
I asked the investigator, “If they did this to your son, what would you do?”
He said, “This cannot happen to me.”
A cop told me, “You see this badge? I do what I want and get away with it.”
If he has stars [indicating rank], does it mean he can do what he wants? How are they different from me, from you? How? They are ordinary citizens, too. Not that I’m a goody-goody, no. But I want the law to be respected.
Sergey Sazonov. Musician, 22, Stolin
On the morning of 23 February 2018, two police officers came to Sergey’s father’s workplace and tried to extract some information about Sergey. They took his father with them to see Sergey, and invited him to get in the car with them. They let his father go. Sergey had previously had several offenses, and he thought that was the reason for the police’s interest in him.
The policemen grilled Sergey for hours about his friends and acquaintances from the punk/hardcore scene, threatened to shoot him in the leg, looked through the pictures on his phone. Then they took him into the woods and put a gun against his back.
The Investigative Committee refused to initiate criminal proceedings.
In the morning, I got a call from the Brest criminal investigation department. They asked for my address and arrived soon after. I went out in all innocence. They didn’t ask me anything else, just took me away. One of them was calm, the other – the young one – was brash. They were interested in my friends from the punk scene. When I stopped answering, they started threatening to shoot me in the leg, saying I wouldn’t be able to prove anything.
Then they took me to the woods. They told me to get out of the car, frisked me and said, “Go on, turn around and take a couple of steps forward.” As I walked away, they stuck something against my back. I immediately realized it was a gun, as I heard the bolt click, they flicked off the safety. I lit a cigarette. He said, “I don’t want to kill you, you know? I don’t want to do that, because you haven’t done anything. It’s about these comrades of yours, and now you have to suffer for them. You’re a good guy, we just need you to tell us about them.”
They started putting pressure on, saying they could get my relatives fired from their jobs, and it would be my fault. The conversation went on for an hour. At first, you think, “What bullshit!” But then you start believing that they can really do it. The emotions build up and up. At that moment, I was extremely vulnerable. It is scary when you can’t do anything, while they can do anything. By this time I’d already realized that these officers had gone rogue. I knew that I wouldn’t get killed, I was 90 percent positive. It’s just shocking. Imagine, someone takes you into the woods, they tell you to put your hands on the glovebox, and keep asking, “Do you want to change your mind?” Thoughts come to your mind: what’s going to happen? The fear of anticipation. I wanted to escape from this hell, I was prepared to run right into the woods, to walk five kilometers back to the city.
All that time they kept assuring me that they had the authority to shoot me in the leg, they could just kill me in the forest, and no one would find out, no one would come looking for me. But I knew it was impossible for a person to disappear just like that.
At first, I was scared to even go to the media about it. I thought if I talked about it, they would come back and it would be worse. I didn’t know what they could do. I wanted them to just leave me alone.
I don’t hate these people, I hate what pushed them to do something like this. What is it? Fear of their bosses, fear of being “ordinary people” themselves, losing their jobs … That’s why they are capable of such inhumane acts. They had a choice, they could have just disobeyed that order.
Boris Zmitrovich. Heavy truck driver, 29, Smorgon
Boris was detained by a night patrol when he was returning from his father’s birthday party on 14 January 2018. During the celebration, he drank about 250-300 ml of vodka. He quarreled with his wife, and she called the police. Boris refused to go to the police station. During the arrest, the police used tear gas, knocked him down, and kicked him. At the police station, he says they broke his nose, but the surveillance camera video, which the police turned over to Boris, has a 22-second gap.
A forensic examination afterwards documented chemical burns to his face and eyes, numerous bodily injuries, and nasal bleeding. Boris’s family has filed seven appeals against the refusal of the Investigative Committee to initiate criminal proceedings against the police.
They knocked me down straight away, got me face down, handcuffed me, and started kicking me from both sides. The third one leaned over and said, “Take that, you animal!” and began spraying me with the canister. It happened near their car and lasted for a few minutes.
At the police station, I was brought to the detention room. My eyes were burning, it was searing. My eyes and face were burning so hard I felt I’d rather die. When you are getting sprayed point blank, it burns like your face has been put in the oven, like the skin on your face has been burned – a horrible sensation. No one provided medical assistance.
I writhed in pain, I couldn’t control myself. I said, “I can’t keep still, let me at least go to the window to breathe.” But they forced me into a chair. When I stood up at the window anyway, an officer punched me in the nose. Right there in the detention room. I think I passed out, I only remember the moment of falling down. Then we went to the hospital for me to be examined. They brought me in, all battered. The doctor asked me, “What happened? Who hit you? How did you get these injuries?” A policeman answered that it happened during the arrest. I complained to the doctor of the pain in my eyes, I was cut, I was having trouble breathing, and my nose was broken.
But the doctor just wiped the blood off my face and said, “Let’s make you handsome!” The station chief said right to my face, “Are your legs and arms intact? Ribs intact? Be grateful nothing is broken.”
Afterwards, wherever I turned – the prosecutor’s office, the Investigative Committee, the Internal Security Directorate of the Interior Ministry – I never heard a word of truth.
I’m an ordinary person. They asked, “Why didn’t you just go with them?” I say, “They didn’t even ask or explain!” They tell me, “This is power!”
They made it clear to me: you are a nobody. If you are told to go somewhere, told to sit – you have to.
Now, whenever I meet someone in a uniform, hatred boils in me. He may be a good employee. But I just remember the berets they were wearing that day.
Tatiana Samnikova-Mastykina. Volunteer in a human rights organization, 31, Minsk
Tatiana was detained in downtown Minsk for verification of her identity, along with other observers from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, during a protest action on 25 March 2018. In the inner courtyard of the police station, Tatiana and the other volunteers spent about three hours standing face to the wall. Inside the police station, she was forcibly fingerprinted and photographed.
The Investigative Committee refused to initiate a case of police malpractice.
I tried to insist on an ordinary person’s right to bodily integrity. I didn’t want to voluntarily give my fingerprints just because I’d been intimidated and subdued. I understand that I have this right, and that they have no legal rights to carry out something like this on me. I clenched my fists and wouldn’t let them open my fists. I had long nails, so he got hold of a fingernail inside my fist and loosened each finger by breaking the nail.
It was vital for me to defend the imprint of every finger. The fight was painful and difficult. It was important to show them that they were wrong and were abusing their authority. However, I had enough of a sense of self-preservation not to push it to the point of broken arms or other injuries.
It was important for me to have control over at least something in that situation, even psychologically. Not to be a victim, to remain true to myself, to defend my right to bodily integrity. This was a value I had to fight for.
I remember this moment very distinctly, when I was being held by several people. One was holding my right arm, twisting it behind me. Another held my left hand. Their commander was fingerprinting me, while another officer held my hand steady for the procedure. When I was able to turn around and see who was holding me from behind, he didn’t look me in the eye. It was clear he didn’t like what he was doing. Maybe he even disagreed with what was happening. Meanwhile, the other officer, who was holding me by the left hand, calmly looked me in the eye and smiled without turning a hair.
All the time this was happening, they were mocking me, insulting me. It was frustrating: you are forced, humiliated, and everyone around is helping it happen. As if it’s supposed to be like that, as if it’s all right. No one supported me, no one said it was against procedure, no one called a superior officer.
Then four or five people grabbed me. Someone held my arms, someone held my legs, and someone else grabbed the hair at the back of my head so I faced straight at the camera. All I could do at that point was to make faces and squint to ruin the picture.
If I had voluntarily given fingerprints, if I had willingly let them take a picture of me … I would have broken down. It’s like consenting to what was happening. In my head, that was not even an option at that moment. It was vital for me not to give up, to defend what I believed in. It was very clear no one would come to help. If I hadn’t texted my friends from the police department about what happened to me, and if it hadn’t spread in the media … they could have done anything to me. When I got home, the fear started, the adrenaline wore off, and then came the realization of what had happened. Then I started to shake … my voice was trembling with emotion … it felt so scary, painful, and I really needed to express that pain. Any violence is difficult to process, to acknowledge yourself in this situation and let go: to draw the right conclusions, to understand that it’s not your fault, and keep living with this experience.
They understand perfectly well what they are doing. If we behave obediently in such situations, these officers think they’re doing the right thing, that this is the norm. For me, this is more proof that we shouldn’t keep quiet. I don’t understand what sort of situation a person has to be in, for him to do such things – even for money! – if you obviously don’t like it. But if you enjoy it, then you should totally see a doctor.
Alexei Shchedrov. Priest and founder of a homeless shelter, 31, Aleksandrovka Village
On 31 January 2019, Alexei Shchedrov went to the Shchuchinsky district hospital to have a tooth extracted. When he got home, the police arrived; he had been accused of stealing a wallet from hospital staff. He spent the night in police custody, where he was beaten and interrogated until he confessed to the theft, which he did not commit.
After studying the video surveillance, the police dropped the charges against him. Having no faith in the possibility of a fair outcome, Alexei never filed a complaint.
They didn’t let me sleep that night. I was sitting on a stool in the police station. They kept clicking a stapler in my ears and yelling at me. They pushed me onto the floor and began stepping on me, crushing my foot. And I just stayed calm and said I was innocent.
When I started praying, the senior lieutenant told me, “Do you think your faith is strong? I’ll knock it out of you. There’s no one here but us.” Then they started hitting me around the head and shoulders. I told them that I took the wallet, to get them to stop.
They feel complete freedom, complete confidence, complete power. If their superiors punished them for treating people like this, this wouldn’t have happened. I thought about how they treated other people. I could not find anything human in them. Only arrogance and cruelty.
Maxim Sarychau is a documentary photographer and visual artist from Belarus. He began this photojournalism project in 2018 and he continues to document and share personal experiences of violence at the hands of the Belarusian authorities. The project received initial funding through a crowdfunding campaign on Press Start. All images via his personal website sarychau.com.