“Humiliation is their hallmark”

Basketball star Yelena Leuchanka recalls 15 days spent in an infamous Belarusian jail

29 Oktober 2020, 10:37 | Meduza
Source: Yelena Leuchanka’s Instagram account via Meduza

On 30 September, one of the most famous athletes of Belarus was arrested at the Minsk Airport. Belarusian national team basketball player Yelena Leuchanka was supposed to go abroad for rehabilitation, but instead, she was placed under arrest for 15 days for her active involvement in opposition demonstrations. Using photos from her Instagram account as evidence, the authorities accused her of taking part in illegal protests on 23 August and 27 September. Leuchanka spent half a month at the Akrestsina detention center in Minsk, a jail that became an infamous symbol of police brutality during the crackdown on protests that followed this summer’s presidential elections in Belarus. In an interview with Meduza, Yelena Leuchanka spoke about her arrest and the ongoing opposition movement in her home country.

Where are you now?

I arrived in Athens a couple of days ago. Back in September, I was supposed to fly here but I was arrested at the Minsk Airport. I came here for rehabilitation and training with my team.

How were you detained?

I didn’t get a chance to go through check-in. I had my bags wrapped in plastic, and then there was a tap on my shoulder. I saw two police officers. They greeted me and said they have to arrest me for taking part in unauthorized rallies. I was expecting this – this is the most common thing people are being arrested for now in Belarus.

Did you suspect that you could be detained?

If they wanted to, they could have detained me early in the morning and the evening before that. So I didn’t expect it. I was shocked, but I smiled at them. Immediately asked to call my lawyer and my mother. 

At the entrance [to the airport territory] I saw a police car. It was facing the opposite direction – they were watching those who were entering. As I later understood, they were forwarding the information on who was entering the airport. I asked them: “Why didn’t you do this before? So that at least I could have skipped wrapping my bags.” Apparently, they waited until the last moment – it was a demonstrative detention. After all, they had to drive 45 kilometers to the airport, and back.

Did they take you straight to Akrestsina detention center?

No, first to the Leninsky District Police Department. Skarakhodau Ivan Aliaksandravich talked with me [in the police station] – I do not know what his position is, but later it turned out that he was a witness in my case, although he did not appear in court.

I asked to let me contact my lawyer. He refused. When I was transported to the prison in Akrestsina, he offered to call the lawyer, if I unblock my phone, dial the number and immediately pass the phone over to him. I refused, as I understood that he could take my phone – and I would never see it again. Afterwards I was sent to a prison cell.

Describe your first day in detention.

The first day I spent in a two-person cell at the police department. There was already a woman. The cell itself had a two-tier bunk, there were no mattresses, but they provided us with sheets. They said that in all likelihood I’d stay [here] for a day, they’d give me a fine, and let me go. I only found out later that they tell everyone the same thing.

The trial was that same day. When I was lying [there] and waiting for the hearing to start, I suddenly heard a girl in another cell started singing ‘Gray’ and ‘Kupalinka.’ I started singing too and of course, burst into tears immediately. It was touching, I felt that even here, in prison, we were together. 

When we finished singing, everyone started to clap. I’ll never forget that. Then the hearing took place and I got 15 days, and the next day I was transferred to Akrestsina detention center – to a cell for four people, where I spent two weeks.

Describe the conditions in prison where you stayed.

There were three of us in the cell. The first night we had mattresses, water, and the sewage system worked. But on 2 October everything started. After breakfast, a man came in and ordered [us] to roll up the mattresses. We rolled them up, we thought we had done something wrong. The detention rules were never explained to us. I’ve never been to jail – God forbid I never will. But if there are rules, share them – we were told nothing. Only a piece of paper that tells you have to pay 13 and a half rubles for food every day.

When did you receive the mattresses back?

At first, we thought that they were taken in order to remove lice and bedbugs. But we never saw them again.

Did you try to get them back?

Yes, we did, the same day. There was an emergency button in the cell and we pressed it with all of our might. For a long time, no one answered, then an evil guard came in. He opened the cell, grabbed the girl standing closest to him and took her out. Five minutes later she returned. He told her ‘Tell your old women to calm down, there won’t be any mattresses’.

On the same day they turned off the hot water and sewerage and threw in two more people – there were five of us in the four-bed cell.

We didn’t know how to sleep. We spread out newspapers and clothes. I, as the tallest, lie down on the bench, someone lied on the table, some in pairs – it was very cold, the heat radiator was off. 

What did they say when you asked to turn on hot water and heat?

The answers were the same: ‘We don’t know, it is not our decision, we need to ask our boss, it doesn’t depend on us.’ Or ignored altogether.

How long did it last finally?

As long as I was there. They didn’t give us mattresses, they gave us hot water only on the day before last. We asked to have a shower, but in 15 days we were never taken to the showers. There were only five walks in 15 days.

Who was there with you in the cell?

The majority ended up in Akrestsina after participating in peaceful protests. One girl was from Viktar Babaryka’s headquarters. She was a Belarusian who lives in Switzerland – she came because she couldn’t remain indifferent to everything that was happening.

There was also a woman who had been convicted eight times. I guess she’s a regular at this place and knows a lot about it. When she came, she simply asked what we had done. Now I understand that the conditions in which we were kept were all created on purpose.  

Does it mean that all cells have different conditions?

Across from ours there was a cell with men. When food was brought, [the guards] would sometimes leave the window open and we could wave to each other. I thought this was a chance to ask them about water. I wrote on a book in large letters a question ‘Do you have hot water?’ and slipped the sheet in. The guys did not see it at first, but when I tried again, they could read it and nodded. Then the girls and I realized that something was wrong here.

In the end, did you find out why there were such conditions in your cell?

Yes. One evening we went up to a classroom with chairs, desks and a TV. There we saw a man in the uniform – it was the head of the detention center Yauhen Shapetska. He introduced himself and said that we might think that police is bad, but it is also hard for the police. And they turned on a movie. Later, the girls said that they noticed a guy in a balaclava. He was recording with his phone as we were watching the movie.

What kind of movie was that?

A pro-government movie produced by Belarusian television. They showed separate shots about people who had leaked the phone numbers of police officers into Telegram channels. There was about someone who attacked an old man. Then a shot about World War II and the fight our grandfathers fought. Then – rallies and that we are running around with fascist flags. Propaganda that we [the protesters] only need our phones, and we do not want to have children.

The movie was over. The head of the detention center said that he would never allow this in his city. Then he started talking about laws, and I raised my hand. I asked him if he was aware of the conditions in our cell. Did he know that we did not have mattresses, they did not take us for a walk or shower, they turned off hot water, the sewer was not working.

What did he reply?

 ‘I am in charge of the conditions of your detention here. This is done so that you don’t want to come back here.’ He asked: ‘How did you imagine it would be?’ The guys retorted that they were imagining as shown on our Belarusian television. Shortly before that, STV channel released a video about how everything is beautiful and great in Akrestsina.

Of those with whom you talked, was someone else in the same bad conditions? 

The girl from my cell asked all the rest this question after the movie. All the guys said no. Then we told Shapetska that human rights are being violated here in Akrestsina. The head of the detention center only said that he would think over this question, and proceeded to the exit. We never saw him again, and nothing changed.

Did the people in the detention center recognize you?

The police did. Once we were coming back from a walk, and a guard asked: ‘Leuchanka, do you smoke? You asked to go for a walk many times.’ And I asked: ‘Can one simply want to go for a walk?’

They knew my last name, yes. It was always funny when the new girls were brought into the cell: ‘Are you Yelena Leuchanka? You’re Yelena Leuchanka? You’re Yelena? I never thought I’d meet you at Akrestsina.’ Well, how do you respond to that? Well, it happens. Let’s get acquainted!

What were you doing while in prison?

Someone drew a sheet to play checkers. We made pieces out of black and white bread and played. We tried to joke, sang songs, talked. And now, when I’m going through social media I see messages from people who were there nearby. They write: ‘We heard how you sang, we clapped.’ In another neighboring cell there was a girl who sang very beautifully every evening. There were such concerts in Akrestsina.” 

Yelena Leuchanka and other Belarusian athletes in an appeal to the world community in response to the crackdown in Belarus.
Source: Yelena Leuchanka’s Instagram account

After serving 15 days, you were arrested and tried once again for participating in protests. This time, you were given a fine and released. Why?

I suspect that it was all in an attempt to “put on a show” to intimidate other athletes and individuals involved in the demonstrations; “to show that this can happen to anyone.” But I did not expect that I would be released, that they would be lenient with me. A fine is probably showing mercy in their language, isn’t it? But I cannot forgive the cruelty they showed towards my family. 

What kind of cruelty?

I only learned the night before that I had a new case and a new trial. This meant that they would not release me. But my loved ones were not informed. They made my mother and father come to Akrestsina at six in the morning and wait for me. I’ll never forget the photo of how my mom was crying on my dad’s shoulder, it was all over the media.

How did these 15 days affect you?

Once again it made me realize that we are on the right track. I can see how cruel these people are. Humiliation is their hallmark. Akrestsina is an infamous place, a lot of tears and pain associated with it. Everything that happened there in the days after the elections is insanity. Now there’s less physical brutality there, less beatings, but I can call everything that happens there psychological violence and moral pressure. They’re violating basic human rights.

Aren’t you afraid to talk about what happened?

If they want to persecute me, they’ll do it anyway. We aren’t protected in any way. Let’s be honest, I didn’t break any laws and didn’t commit any crimes. In Belarus today it is not important, as if human life has no value. This is a legal default and it’s the only thing there is in Belarus now. Therefore, all we can do is tell the truth and share what we are experiencing.

You are now in Greece. When will you come back?

I don’t know yet. But, of course, I’m going to come back. Now my main goal is to get in my best shape and start playing.

Do you talk with other athletes from Belarus?

Every day.

How do they react to protests?

Unfortunately, world-class athletes are silent and don’t comment on the situation at all. Sometimes they make posts against violence, but violence is a consequence. They don’t talk about the reason [for it].

What do you think about the people who are silent?

It seems to me that [those who stay silent] are in prison and we, on the other hand, are free. But initially, I was outraged. I wanted the athletes to speak up – especially the eminent ones. At the same time, one can’t get hung up on this. It is their choice, we need to move on. There are a lot of us. 998 Belarusian athletes have in fact signed an open letter presenting their demands to the authorities.

Photo of a protest rally in Belarus. The banner reads, “Athletes with the people.”
Source: Yelena Leuchanka’s Instagram account

Do you discuss the situation in Belarus with basketball players from other countries?

Yes. Before the court hearing, the lawyer asked me: “Lena, what can we do? How can we help?” I asked to give my story and everything that happens in the country maximum publicity. As a result, I was supported by thousands of people from Belarus and the entire world sports community. I am grateful to every person. I am grateful to the basketball community: I was supported by the WNBA players’ union, women’s WNBA players, European basketball players and basketball federations of other countries. Well, except for the Belarusian federation.

Do you think this kind of attention helped you get released?

I’m not sure that in Akrestsina they think about it at all. In fact, they don’t really care: who you are, what you are, whether you are guilty or not. Someone there predetermines the scenario according to which all events develop. Therefore, I don’t think that the global resonance somehow influenced my release specifically. But I’m sure it’s putting pressure on the whole system now.

Until 2020, you were an apolitical person, weren’t you?

I was apolitical – in 2020 I voted for the first time in my life. Belarusians really woke up! Before, we were convinced that if we voted [against Lukashenko] nothing would change. It was part of the mentality. They bully you – you pretend it’s okay. The only thing you can do is swallow it. I’m not just talking about politics. This was the attitude towards everything.

What exactly are you talking about?

For example, the story of my relationship with the national basketball team [in 2019]. I had a knee surgery, I could not go to the European Championship. I was fired without warning.

Coronavirus that apparently did not exist. The medical personnel was frightened. There was an impression that they were abandoned. There were no masks. Then the election campaign. It seems to me that we have just reached the limit in our patience. So in the summer I started to express my opinion.

What do you think Belarus will face next?

Freedom! I believe that we will come to the point where Belarus will have the freedom of speech, there will be no fear, and there will be no need to step out of your home questioning whether or not you will be able to come back. You won’t need to know your lawyer’s number by heart. No one will be afraid of losing their job or place on the national team just for having an opinion. The worst thing is that they aren’t listening to us and all we want is simply a dialogue. We need to stick it out, this may be a long fight.