“People lay like a living carpet in pools of blood”

Scary ZNAK.com report on how detainees at protests are beaten in jails in Belarus

12 August 2020, 18:23 | ZNAK
Nikita Telizhenko, ZNAK journalist.
Source: ZNAK

Znak.com correspondent Nikita Telizhenko was detained on the evening of 10 August in Minsk, before a protest rally against the results of the presidential elections in Belarus. He came to the republic on an assignment of Znak.com editorials office. Within 24 hours after his arrest, we had no communications with him. Nikita was released only last night. Here is his report from the police station in Minsk and the prison at Zhodino – endless beatings, humiliation and pain. 


I was detained on 10 August at the time when the whole Minsk was going to the second protest rally against the results of the presidential elections in Belarus. The rally was planned on Nemiga street. Combat vehicles and trucks were already being pulled to this place, there was a lot of military, riot police and militia in the passages and between houses. I was just walking and watching the preparations for the protests. I saw water cannons, wrote to the editorial office about it, and literally a minute later police officers approached me, they were wearing everyday uniforms. They asked me to show what I had in my plastic bag, they thought it was suspicious. I showed it – there was only my jacket. After that, I was free to go.

Soon, at a bus stop at the Sports Palace, I saw how everyone who got off the bus was grabbed by riot police and put into a paddy wagon. I took several photos of this process on my phone and began to write to the editor about the first arrests at the second protest rally. Then I went to the side of the stele “Hero City”, where the day before was a real bloodshed between protesters and riot police. I wanted to see how this place looked after the butchery. But halfway there was an MPV. And now combat-equipped riot policemen have jumped out of it. They ran up to me and asked what I was doing here. As I gathered later, they were looking for the coordinators of the protests, they knew that the protesters shared information via Telegram app about the police’s movements and ambushes. They apparently decided that I was one of them. I tell them: “I don’t even have Telegram on my phone, I type text messages, I’m a journalist, I text to the editorials office”. They grabbed my phone, read the messages, and then put me into the car. I told them that I had not committed anything illegal, that I was not participating in the protest rally, I was a journalist. The answer was: “Sit down, the authorities will come and figure it out.”

Detention of journalist Siamion Pehau.
Source: Dzmitry Brushko, TUT.BY

Soon a “Gazelle” minibus arrived, which was altered specifically as a paddy wagon. There were three compartments, two of which had a blank door and a small window. They tied me up and put me there. I asked for a phone to inform the editorials office that I had been detained after all.

“You’re not detained,” – one of the riot police told me.

“Well, I’m behind the bars,” – I replied.

“Sit still,” – he retorted.

Then they took my passport and saw that I was a citizen of Russia.

“What the f*ck are you doing here?”

“I’m a journalist,” – I replied.

This was the end of the dialogue with the riot police. And I sat in the minibus and waited for it to be filled completely with the same “not detained” people as me. This took half an hour. They put a retired man of 62 years old next to me. His name was Nikolay Arkadyevich. He told me that he was detained when he was walking shopping and saw that riot police were grabbing a boy. “I stood up for him, tried to fight him off. I told them: he is just a kid, what are you doing?” Nikolay Arkadyevich shared his story. As a result, the boy ran away and Nikolay was detained.

Nikolay, according to his own words, was hit hard in the liver. He asked to call an ambulance, but no one of the policemen responded.

16 hours of hell in the police station in Minsk

So we were moving somewhere. I didn’t know where exactly. As it turned out later, it was the Moskovsky District police station in Minsk. 16 hours there would turn out to be hell for all of us. We drove there for 20-30 minutes.

As soon as the minibus stopped, riot policemen in bullet-proof vests were standing on the street shouting: “Face the ground!!!”

Several policemen flew into our paddy wagon and bent our arms behind our backs so hard that it was almost impossible to walk.

The guy in front of me – they purposely hit his head on the doorframe of the entrance to the police department. He screamed in pain. In response, they began to beat him over the head and shout: “Shut up, bitch!” The first time they hit me, it was when they took me out of the paddy wagon, I just bent my head not low enough and got hit with an arm to the head, and then with a knee in the face.

In the building of the police department, we were first taken to some room on the 3th floor.

People there were lying on the floor like a living carpet, and we were forced to walk over them. I felt really uncomfortable that I stepped on someone’s hand, but I did not see at all where I was going. My head was tilted strongly to the floor. “Everyone on the floor, face down!” – they yelled at us. And there was nowhere to lie down as people were lying around in pools of blood everywhere.

I managed to find a place to lie down. Not on people, as a second layer, but next to them. You could only lie on your stomach, face down. I was lucky that I was wearing a hygiene mask, it brightened up the impression of a dirty floor in which I had to bury my nose. The guy next to me trying to make himself a bit more comfortable, accidentally turned his head to the side and immediately got a kick in the face with an army boot.

Severe beatings were going on all around. Hits, cries, screams were heard from everywhere. It seemed to me that some of the detainees had broken arms, legs, or even spinal bones, because at the slightest movement they screamed in pain.

New detainees were forced to lie down in a second layer. But after a while they apparently realized that this was a bad idea, and someone ordered to bring benches. I was among those who were allowed to sit on them. But at the same time, it was possible to sit only with a head lowered and hands clasped at the back of the head. Only then I realized where we were – it turned out to be the assembly hall of the police station. In front of me I saw photos of police officers who serve the most honorably. It seemed an evil irony, I was wondering – will today’s merits of those who beat us be assessed as an honorable service?

So this was how we spent 16 hours.

To go to the toilet, you had to raise your hand. Some of those who guarded us allowed that and took people to the restroom. Some said: “Soil yourself.”

My arms and legs became terribly numb, my neck hurt. Sometimes they swapped those laying and sitting. Sometimes some new officers came to take all our data again: the last name and time of detention.

At about 2 AM, new detainees were brought to the police station, and that was the moment when fierce brutality began. The policemen forced the detainees to pray, to read “Lord’s Prayer”. Those who refused were beaten with all means available. Sitting in the assembly hall, we heard people being beaten on the floors below and above us. It seemed that people were literally trampled into concrete.

Meanwhile the explosions of concussion grenades were heard outside the windows. Window glasses and even doors were trembling in our assembly hall. The battle was going on right under the windows of the police department. With each passing hour, with each new batch of detainees brought to the police department, the policemen raged and became even more violent. The policemen were genuinely surprised by the protesters’ activity. I heard them talking to each other on the radio that reserve detachments were being used to suppress the protests. They were furious that people did not leave the streets. Despite the fact that they were beaten and beaten brutally, people were not afraid of them, they were building barricades and resisting.

“You, bitch, whom did you put the barricades against? Are you going to fight against me? Do you want war?” – shouted one of the policemen beating the detainee. What especially shocked me was that all these beatings took place in front of two women, employees of the police department. They were registering the detainees and their belongings. Teenagers aged 15–16 and children were beaten in front of their eyes. Beating such people is like beating girls! And they didn’t even react.

A lady injured by stun grenade in Minsk.
Source: Uladz Hrydzin, Radio Free Europe

For the sake of fairness, not all police officers were involved in open massacre and sadism. There was one captain who came to us, asked who wanted water, who wanted to use the toilet. But he did not react to what his younger colleagues were doing in the corridor with the detainees.

Employees of each new shift in the department asked each of us who we were, where we were from and when we were detained. Moreover, after they saw my Russian passport, the blows became not so strong compared to those that I received when they thought I was a citizen of Belarus.

None of us was allowed to make a single call. I am sure that the relatives of many of those who sat next to me that night still don’t know where their loved ones are.

At about 7 or 8 AM, the police chief has arrived. Obviously they had arrived not from home, but from Minsk streets, where the war was continuing.

They began to conduct a census of the detainees. It turned out that two were missing. They started running around the offices, trying to figure out where these two had gone. They could not find out. When I was lying on the floor, I saw a man (or maybe it was a woman) being carried out on a litter. The man didn’t move. I don’t know if he was alive.

After that, we were all transferred to the ground floor and put into cells for the detainees. They were designed for 2 people, and we were packed with about 30. The process was accompanied by obscene swearing and beatings. They shouted: “[Stand]tighter! Tighter!” Among my cellmates there were aged as well as young people. There I again met Nikolay Arkadievich. But he stood with us for half an hour, then they took him out and put him in a neighboring empty cell.

During the first hour, the walls and ceiling of the cell had been covered with condensation. Someone, tired of standing, sat down on the floor, but there was no air at all, and they fainted. Those who stood were suffering from the heat. We spent two or three hours there waiting for the transfer. We didn’t know where we would be transferred to…

The doors opened. “Face to the wall,” – they yelled at us, then the security forces flew in, started wringing our hands behind our backs and dragging us across the floor through all the police department. In the paddy wagon they again began to lay us in piles, like a living carpet. They shouted to us: “Your house is a prison!” [the altered quote from still popular Soviet detective movie] Those who were lying on the floor were suffocating from the weight of the bodies: there were three more layers of people on top of them.

The road of pain and blood

In the paddy wagon they continued to beat people: for tattoos, for long hair “You fag, now they will rape you in prison,” – they yelled at them.

A demonstrator injured during the first post-election protests in Minsk on 10 August 2020.
Source: Vasily Fedosenko, REUTERS via KYKY

Those lying on the steps asked to be allowed to change their position, but received blows on the head with a rubber baton instead.

We spent an hour like this in the paddy wagon. I thought that, apparently, they did not know what to do with us, since there were many detainees and all the detention centers were overcrowded.

But then again a policeman shouted: “Crawl and stand on your haunches.” Hands were forced to clasp into a lock at the back of the head. It was impossible to lean back on the seat, nor to straighten up. Those who violated this requirement were mercilessly beaten. They were allowed to switch feet only occasionally. For this, they had to raise their hands, give their full name, tell where they came from and where they were detained.

If the guard (first I thought we were escorted by riot police but then I found out that it was SOBR, Special Rapid Response Unit, military special forces within Belarussian Ministry of Internal Affairs)) didn’t like your last name, tattoo or appearance, they forbid you to switch feet and beat you for repeated requests. Moreover, later they said that an attempt to change the pose would be equated to an attempt to escape – and, therefore, an execution on the spot.

Requests to stop to go to the toilet were ignored. We were just offered to pee in our pants. Some could not stand it, they even had to shit in pants. And so we drove in squelching excrement. When our guards got bored, they made us sing songs, mainly the anthem of Belarus, and filmed it all on the phones. When they didn’t like the performance, they beat us again. When one sang badly, the guards forced us to sing anew, and then gave grades. “If you think you’re in pain, then you’re not hurt yet – it will be painful now in prison. Your loved ones will not see you again,” – the guards told us.

“You fuckers are sitting here now, and your Tikhanovskaya (Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is a competitor of the current president Alexander Lukashenko in the elections and, as protesters believe, the winner of the elections. On 11 August, under pressure from the Belarusian authorities, she was forced to leave the country – Znak. com) ran the fuck off from the country, and you will have no more life,” – said one of the guards.

The trip took two and a half hours. It was two hours of pain and blood.

During the trip I managed to get one of our guards to talk (then I learned that they were from SOBR). Of course, I was beaten up for this, but I do not regret it. In the end, he later allowed me to take a more comfortable pose. I asked him why I was detained, why was I hit in the neck with a shield, why I was beaten in the kidneys. “We’re just waiting for you to start burning something on the streets,” – he told me. “And then we will start shooting [to kill], we have an order. There was a great power – the Soviet Union, and because of such fagots like you, it collapsed. Because no one put you in place on time. If you (meant the Russian Federation – Znak.com) think that you have infiltrated your Tikhanovskaya here, she has cheated on you, then you should know that you won’t have a second Ukraine, we will not allow Belarus to become a part of Russia.”

A girl is trying to shout out to detainees in the paddy wagon.
Source: Euroradio

“Why the fuck you came over here,” – he asked me.
“I am a journalist, I came to write about what is happening here…”
“Well, bitch, did you write? You will remember this material for a very long time.”

“Stop torturing us, just take us out and shoot us,” – cried a young guy who was close to nervous breakdown because of beatings and pain.

“Fuck no, you won’t get off so easily,” – one of the guards replied.

During this long hellish road, I realized that among those SOBR guards there were both outspoken sadists and ideological ones who believe that they are really saving their homeland from external and internal enemies. So with the latter dialogue is possible.

The jail

All the way we didn’t know where they were taking us: to a temporary detention facility, a pre-trial detention center, a prison, or maybe just to the nearest forest, where they would either beat us half to death, or simply kill us. As for the latter option, I am not exaggerating at all, we felt like they could do to us everything they wanted..

When we reached the final point (I’ll call it that, because I didn’t fully understand where we were), we stood there for an hour and a half or two. Seven more paddy wagons arrived with us, so there was a line. When the order came to leave the paddy wagons, they took us out on our knees. Then they took us to some basement, there were people and service dogs.

This made the fear for the future stronger, but in the end, everything turned out to be not as scary as it was in the Moskovsky district police station.

For a long time they took us along some corridors, then they took us into the prison courtyard – the one you see in the movies, where prisoners walk. It was almost paradise for us.

We were able to lower our arms for the first time in a day, straighten up, lie down, and, most importantly, no one beat us yet. One guy had a damaged spine, riot policemen jumped on him in the police department. His knee was also knocked out, it dangled straight out and stuck out. So he just went out into this courtyard and fell.

For the first time in these 16 hours, we were treated like human beings: they brought a bucket to use it as a toilet (some of us did not do it for almost a day!) and brought a one and a half liter bottle of water. Of course, this was not enough for 25 people, but still …

“They won’t beat us again today?” – one of the detainees asked the one who brought the bucket and water.

“No,” – the prison officer replied with surprise. “Now you will simply be sent to the cells, that’s all.”

Vartan Grigorian, released from custody, shows his wounds after being beaten by the police.
Source: Natalia Fedosenko, ТАСС / Scanpix / LETA via Meduza

For the first time we were free to talk to each other. There were entrepreneurs, IT specialists, locksmiths, two engineers, one builder, and also former prisoners. By the way, one of them said that this is not a temporary detention facility, but a prison in Zhodino. He knew this because he spent some time there before. Soon my friend Nikolay Arkadyevich was brought into the courtyard.

A man in uniform stepped onto the footbridge over the prison yard. “Telizhenko? Is Nikita Telizhenko here?” – he shouted. I responded. A man in a military uniform spoke to the one standing next to him, and then shouted: “Nikita, come to the door, they will come for you now.”

My cellmates were very happy for me. “Well, they finally take you away,” – Nikolai Arkadyevich said to me at parting.

Way home

The man in uniform turned out to be Colonel Ilyushkevich of the Penitentiary Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus. He said that another Russian and I (it turned out to be a RIA Novosti news agency reporter) would be taken away. I didn’t know by whom. “Belarus KGB officers or Russian embassy staff,” – I thought. They returned me all my belongings, and we went out of the prison gate.

A lot of people were standing there: family members, who were looking for their loved ones missing after detention, human rights activists. We were met by a woman who introduced herself as an official of the migration service of Belarus, she took us to the city of Zhodino, to the migration department. They took our fingerprints and gave us a deportation order, according to which I and the correspondent of RIA Novosti had to leave the territory of the republic until 12 PM. At that moment it was already 10:30 PM.

According to her, tomorrow I was supposed to have a trial. She could not explain what the charges were (I did not see any documents on bringing me to administrative or criminal liability, they did not make any charges against me) but she said I could be arrested for a period from 15 days to six months.

Then a Russian consular officer arrived. He said that in order to find us, the Russian ambassador personally called the head of the Belarus ministry of foreign affairs. The diplomat put us in a car and drove us to Smolensk, Russia.

For the remaining hour and a half, we managed to cross the border with the Russian Federation, arrived in Smolensk at 2:30. The consul bought us a couple of burgers, because neither I nor my colleague had Russian money. Then he drove us to a hotel and left.

Now I am going to Moscow to fly home to Yekaterinburg.