Detention conditions at the temporary detention facilities on Akrestsina Street and in Zhodzina have deteriorated

We talked to those who were recently released from these facilities

8 April 2021, 11:03 | TUT.BY
The picture is for illustrative purposes only.
Source: Reuters

Recently, there have been reports of deteriorating detention conditions in the temporary detention facilities on Akrestsina Street in Minsk and in Zhodzina. We talked to those newly released from these facilities.

Relatives and acquaintances of some of those released from the detention centers on Akrestsina Street and in Zhodzina talk about bullying and mass beatings. Volunteers also reported that on Wednesday, 7 April, the detention center in Zhodzina stopped allowing sausages, meat, cheese, books, crossword puzzles, as well as pencils, pens, felt-tip pens, notebooks, notepads and envelopes in parcels to the detainees.

To find out how things are going, we spoke with some of those who served administrative detention in both detention centres from late March to early April. Some conclusions that can be drawn based on these conversations: physical abuse is present but not at the level of mass beatings, and the detention conditions, including episodes that could qualify as intimidation or bullying, depend on the attitudes of particular staff members.

Upon request, we have changed the names of those with whom we spoke – their actual private details are stored at the editorial office.

It’s too hot on Akrestsina Street, too cold in Zhodzina

Siarhei was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention for a one-man picket – an “unauthorised” flag had hung in the window of his apartment. He spent three days on Akrestsina Street. He complains about the lack of mattresses and walks, as well as the heat and stuffiness in the cell, which was overcrowded by more than three times. Siarhei says a lot depends on which guards are on shift – there are those who treat those who have been arrested better, others worse. One staff member would sometimes talk to the detainees. Siarhei tried to ask her for mattresses and explained that when seven people sit in a double cell, it is impossible to sleep.

“She would laugh and say that the record for that cell was 12 people, so we were lucky. She said: ‘When there were 12 people, I offered them not to sleep at all. Shall I continue my line of thought?’ Ok, thanks, but no thanks. We heard how the girls on the other side of the wall were told not to throw out sanitary pads as they said they would come in handy the next day. We heard from the corridor something like: ‘sit it out, maybe you’ll get wiser, it will straighten you out,’ things like that.”

At the end of March, Siarhei was transferred to the detention centre in Zhodzina. His cell was overcrowded by one and a half times, but there the problem was not the heat, but the cold. Soon after his arrival, the mattresses were also taken away, the administration explaining it was by order of the management. Some of those who had to sleep on the floor developed a runny nose, some had a fever, but the doctor did not visit the cell despite requests. Detainees also sought a meeting with the management, but the next day, during the morning search, they were treated more harshly – books, notebooks and pens, among other things, were taken away. They were also told that it was necessary to get rid of any food products from the parcels they received shortly after the parcels arrived.

Siarhei also experienced the so-called “physical measures”. When he first arrived at the detention centre, he received several blows during a full search for “being slow”.

“I went in, they told me to undress in 15 seconds or I would regret it. Out of principle, I didn’t want to be done in 15 seconds. Why not 20? Am I Pavlov’s dog or what? I did not undress in time and received three blows with a truncheon on the buttocks, on the shoulder, and in the side. They left large hematomas.”

On the day when Siarhei was supposed to be released, at the checkpoint, he was kicked in the back by the guard while walking past with his belongings. Siarhei emphasises that while serving his sentence, he himself did not see anyone else being beaten, but he heard how the officers in the next cell were trying, apparently, to find the culprit of some violation. The one who eventually confessed was apparently beaten. Siarhei says that the sounds of blows and moans could be heard distinctly. During the morning searches, anyone could get kicked on the ankles – this way, detainees placed facing the wall were forced to spread their legs wider.

“Today is Maundy Thursday and Mr. Clean says your cell has failed”

Aliaksandr drew the attention of law enforcement also because of a flag in a window; he was later sentenced to 15 days’ detention for disobedience to the police. He spent two days on Akrestsina Street. Aliaksandr notes that by all accounts, the “political” detainees are kept in worse conditions than the other detainees. In general, conditions were tolerable until a bucket of concentrated chlorine solution was poured onto the floor one day, which made it difficult to breathe.

“There was this joke from the corridor guard: ‘What day is it? Today is Maundy Thursday, and Mr. Clean says your cell has failed the test.’ And then a bucket of bleach is poured into the cell and everyone is pushed back inside to clean it up.”

During the morning check shortly after the day when parcels had arrived, some of the food products were taken away, as well as all the books, magazines and crossword puzzles; only a couple of books on the English language were left.

Aliaksandr was transferred to Zhodzina towards the end of March and was released at the beginning of April. According to him, there was no special pressure from the staff and overcrowding in the cells until 25 March. Books and other printed materials were not taken away during the searches. Those who persistently asked for medical assistance received it. Some people with chronic conditions were allowed full or partial bed rest. Once, the detainees even got a visit from a prosecutor who asked about the detention conditions. For the most part, everyone was happy with everything, so the detainees only asked him about the light that is always left on for the night. The staff explained that this was done for the safety of the guests, although upon admission those who had sleep masks with them had them taken away.

After 25 March, the number of people sitting in the same cell with Aliaksandr increased by one and a half times; those who did not have enough space slept on the floor. Because of this, sometimes there was not enough food for everyone: some of the detainees received incomplete rations. And on 1 April, an incident occurred, as a result of which the guards began to fuss and take all the mattresses away. Apparently, the matter concerned a detainee who had been released the day before.

“According to the guards, someone who had been released wrote something somewhere. The guards said: ‘When you get released, you will find out.’ […] As a result, that evening one of the guards said: ‘I don’t know anything, the management called us’.”

After his release, Aliaksandr could not find information on the Internet that caused such a reaction from the staff of the Zhodzina detention centre.

“We had some easier times, so some of the staff still tried to be less cruel”

Yauheni served his administrative detention until the end of March on Akrestsina Street, and then he was transferred to Zhodzina. The complaints about the detention centre in Minsk are the same: lack of mattresses, overcrowded cells, heat and stuffiness. At first, morning check-ups were easy-going, with a doctor present who could give some simple medications. Sometimes, the staff turned off the lights for the night. Later, some solidly-built people in civilian clothes and without masks appeared and conducted explanatory talks, saying that relatives should not hand over too much food in the parcels. They took away dried apricots and nuts, and also confiscated books and notebooks.

Yauheni also spoke about a staff member who organised “chemical attacks” by pouring a bucket of bleach onto the floor of the cell. This happened twice during his stay on Akrestsina Street. The bleach caused discomfort: it caused a burning sensation in the eyes and made it difficult to breathe.

“He [the staff member] would say snidely that now they will pour chlorinated water into your cell, and his recommendation would be to do everything possible to wipe this water dry within the next five minutes. Because if we didn’t, we would get burning eyes and so on.”

Yauheni also confirms that the detention conditions are largely dependent on the human factor.

If there was no one with a sense of conscience and humanity left working there, then, probably, we would have received bleach every day and there would be a harsh attitude towards us every day. We had some easier times, so some of the staff still tried to be less cruel.

Yauheni’s impression of his detention in Zhodzina was better than that of Akrestsina Street, even though it was impossible to receive medical assistance and, after 25 March, there were 15 detainees in a 10-bed cell and walks were stopped. But the situation deteriorated on 1 April, when the mattresses were taken away. And from the next day, the checks became tougher, including the use of physical force: the detainees were forced to spread their legs very wide (stretching); some could be hit for not following orders. The staff said that they could “thank” the man who had been released the day before for this change, but did not explain why. They just said that after detainees get released, they would find out everything themselves.

“We asked if that person had written any complaints, and they replied that it would have been better to write a hundred complaints than what he did. But in the end, no one told us who did what and why they took away the mattresses.”

I was afraid that in the shower, gas would come out instead of water

Iryna spent four days out of her 15-day sentence appointed by the court in the temporary detention facility on Akrestsina Street. She, like everyone else we spoke to, faced overcrowding and lack of mattresses, as well as bleach solution poured onto the floor of the cell. She also heard jokes about “Mr. Clean” and “Maundy Thursday” from the staff members. After Iryna had wiped the bleach solution off the floor, she had mild chemical burns on her feet and hands. A cellmate assured Iryna that this was done in all the cells with detainees under the “political” articles of the Administrative Code.

When Iryna was transferred to Zhodzina, she, according to her, immediately plunged into an atmosphere of fear. When new detainees were admitted, the staff told them that they would use physical force or shoot to kill if detainees strayed, for example, while walking down the corridor. Detainees could hear swearing and the sounds of truncheon blows. However, Iryna is sure that this was done to scare, and no one got beaten in reality.

They took us to the shower and told us to undress and wash. And then I got the full impression that we, as Jews during the war, were brought in, and now gas would start flowing and not water.

Detention conditions, according to Iryna, were acceptable: they had mattresses and bed linen, and they were taken for walks and to the shower. Iryna also knows about the prosecutor’s visit. Afterwards, cells got overcrowded and, according to Iryna, from 1 April, “some kind of horror began, as everyone described it like in August-September [2020].” During a morning check, when the men were taken out into the corridor, the girls heard dull thumps. Once, they heard how in the men’s cell, the officers were apparently trying to find the culprit of some violation. One of the guys confessed and the girls heard how he got beaten up – many blows were heard, as if several people were doing it.

“We heard him wheeze. Then they shouted at him: ‘Get up!’ Apparently, he could no longer get up. And that’s it, it made us all panic. Because it is difficult to confuse such wheezing with something else.”

The mattresses were taken away from the girls, after which, during the checks, staff began to confiscate books, crossword puzzles and sleep masks. Also, from time to time, up to three times a night, the guards would read out the names of the detainees who were supposed to respond through the food hatch, and the same was done in the men’s cell. Iryna, who fell ill during her detention, did not get medical help, and some of her cellmates found it difficult to get even those medicines that they were allowed to take with them to the detention facility.

“Essentially, nothing has changed”

The leader of the Malady Front youth movement, Dzianis Urbanovich, was arrested on 21 March and later sentenced to 15 days’ detention for insubordination to police officers. The next day, he was transferred from the temporary detention center to the isolation facility for offenders on Akrestsina Street, where he stayed for 24 hours.
Source: Viasna Human Rights Centre

“Essentially, nothing has changed: a two-man cell, which had 10 people in it. As always, they pour out a bucket of bleach onto the floor, only it’s so concentrated that you can’t even open your eyes,” says Urbanovich.

When he was transferred to Zhodzina, the conditions there seemed acceptable: there were mattresses, books and even board games. After 25 March, there were more people in the cell, and from 27 March, they began to take away bedding, and then books, pens and notebooks. Urbanovich also spoke about the toughening of the regime from 1 April.

They just started pulling us out of the cell since the morning. From our cell, they pulled out a friend of mine […] and beat him up with truncheons. After him, it was my turn. […] I was taken to the shower room and beaten on my back and buttocks – everything was beaten blue. Why they were doing this, I didn’t understand, they weren’t making sense. The whole thing was supervised by a tall major.

Then, according to Dzianis, detainees were taken out of their cells and shouted at, and those who were a bit slow were “urged on” with a truncheon. Everyone was given 24 hours to finish all the food products they had in the cell; nuts and dried fruit were taken away. According to Urbanovich, he heard how one of the men in another cell was beaten up as he had something on him that wasn’t allowed, and he also heard the phrase “there, don’t, don’t hit”. Also, according to Urbanovich, those who, for example, had T-shirts with “opposition” symbols or national ornaments, as well as those who, before being released, were found carrying letters or notes that their cellmates had asked to be taken outside, got punished. Urbanovich also said that several times during the night, some cells were woken up for a roll call. Detainees are only allowed to sit at a table, they are not allowed to sleep there, and it is forbidden to sit on bunks during the day.

Dzianis Urbanovich does not know the reasons for the toughening of the regime from 1 April. However, the next day, when he and his cellmates were taken out into the corridor for a check, he heard a man scolding the officers.

“He was saying: ‘What did I teach you about how to shake down cells? You were instructed to create certain conditions. Did you create them? I don’t see it. They are spending time here like at a resort. I tell you again: either make it happen, or I will make it happen to you.’ Whoever that was – I don’t know.”

Among the guards, Urbanovich recognized some of the policemen from the temporary detention center in the Minsk region. One of them told him that they had been sent to Zhodzina for reinforcement. Also, some of the detainees were photographed with a phone, while, according to Urbanovich, the guards are not allowed to carry such equipment with them at such a secure facility – they have to leave it at the entrance.