Znak.com correspondent Nikita Telizhenko was one of several Russian journalists in Minsk on August 10 to cover the Belarusian presidential election. On Sunday evening, the story switched abruptly to mass protests that swept the capital and the violent police crackdown that followed. Telizhenko was arrested and spent the next two days as an eyewitness to the “endless beatings, humiliation, and pain” visited upon the demonstrators now jailed in Minsk and Zhodzina. Meduza summarizes his account below. Read the full Russian text here at Znak.com.
Nikita Telizhenko made the mistake of being outside in Minsk during Sunday’s opposition protests on Sunday night and then he exacerbated the situation by using his mobile phone to snap some photographs. After being released by one group of riot police, he was confronted by a second, less forgiving unit. Telizhenko says the officers were tracking the opposition’s Telegram channels and were trying to hunt down the protest coordinators on the ground. “I don’t even have Telegram installed on my phone. I’m just texting. I’m a journalist and I’m talking to my newsroom,” he says he told the police. They grabbed his phone and read through all his messages. Then they stuffed him in a minivan and told him to wait until their superiors arrived to sort it out.
Another vehicle, this one retrofitted to serve as a police van, soon arrived. The officers then transferred Telizhenko, twisting him into one of the second van’s three interior compartments. When he asked for his phone back, so he could tell his editors that he’d been arrested, one of the officers explained that he wasn’t technically under arrest. “But I’m locked up,” Telizhenko said. “Just sit there quietly,” came the response.
Before they drove off, Telizhenko got company: a 62-year-old man named Nikolai whom police had also “not arrested” when he intervened outside a grocery store to stop officers from apprehending a young man. “He’s just a kid. What the hell are you doing?” Nikolai said he’d told the cops. In the end, the boy got away, but the officers arrested Nikolai, hitting him repeatedly in the kidneys while subduing him. In the police van, he said he needed medical attention, but the officers ignored him.
Sixteen hours of hell
After driving for about 25 minutes, Telizhenko and his companions arrived at Minsk’s “Moskovskoye” police station. As they exited the van, officers in body armor shouted, “Eyes to the ground!”
As they were led inside, Telizhenko witnessed the first of what would be many acts of naked violence: the officers deliberately smashed the head of the man ahead of him into the door jamb. When he cried out in pain, they started beating him and screaming, “Shut up, bitch!” Telizhenko says he was also beaten when he exited the van and failed to bend low enough. An officer punched him in the head and then kneed him in the face.
Inside the police department, they were escorted to the fourth floor, where they came to a room where prisoners “lay on the floor like a living carpet” in pools of their own blood. Telizhenko says he and the others literally had to step on them when looking for somewhere to rest. Eventually, he found a place to lie down without crushing anyone below, but it required being face-down on his chest. “I lucked out that I was wearing a medical mask. It gave me a sense of relief that I was farther from the dirty floor where I had to bury my nose,” Telizhenko recalls. Someone planted beside him had the audacity to shift his weight slightly to get more comfortable. When the man accidentally turned his head, an officer in combat boots landed a swift kick to his face.
The room around Telizhenko was filled with the sounds of assault. From every direction, he says he heard blows and screams. Some of the prisoners seemed to have suffered broken bones, he says, because they shrieked in pain at the slightest movement.
When they brought in even more prisoners, people were forced to start lying on top of each other. After a while, says Telizhenko, even the officers realized this was a bad idea and they ordered some benches brought in. Telizhenko was one of the first detainees allowed to take a seat, though he had to keep his eyes lowered and his hands cuffed behind the back of his head.
Prisoners were allowed to use the bathroom — sometimes. Telizhenko says people had to raise their hands to request permission, which wasn’t always granted. “Go in your pants,” some officers answered. No one was allowed any phone calls. Telizhenko’s arms and legs went numb. His neck throbbed. Sometimes, the officers would move prisoners around. New shifts came on duty and recorded their information all over again. When officers saw that he was a Russian citizen, they started pulling their punches. “The blows were suddenly not as hard as when they thought I was a Belarusian,” Telizhenko says.
He spent the next 16 hours like this.
Around 2 a.m., more detainees were brought in. Through the walls and the floors, Telizhenko says he could hear the officers forcing people to recite The Lord’s Prayer. Those who refused were beaten mercilessly. “Sitting there in the assembly hall, we heard how they were beating people on the floors above and below us. It felt like they were practically trampling them into the concrete,” he remembers.
Based on what he overheard in the station, Telizhenko says the police officers were genuinely shocked as well as enraged by the determination displayed by the city’s protesters. Concussion grenades outside rattled the building’s windows and doors, and officers on the radio spoke of activated reserve units and demonstrators who refused to surrender.
After dawn, when Telizhenko was back on the floor, he says he saw someone carried off on a stretcher. “The person wasn’t moving. I don’t know if they were alive,” he says.
Later in the morning, the group was finally moved into proper jail cells, though the officers crammed upwards of 30 people into spaces designed for two inmates. In one of these cells, Telizhenko reconnected with Nikolai, the older man arrested with him the night before. Nikolai stood with everyone for about 30 minutes, until the officers moved him to an empty cell.
Tired of standing, some people sat on the floor, but it was so crowded and the air so thick that many found it hard to breathe. The walls and the ceiling were soon dripping with condensation and some people passed out from the heat. For two or three hours, everyone waited to be transferred but no one knew where they would be taken.
The long winding road
When the cell doors finally opened, they were herded once more into police vans and stacked again, three layers thick. Telizhenko says the officers shouted, “Prison is your home!” as people suffocated under the weight of other shackled bodies.
The officers continued to beat people, this one for a tattoo, that one for long hair. “You faggot, in prison now they’ll take turns with your ass,” the guards shouted. Anyone who asked to shift positions was clobbered in the head, says Telizhenko, who only learned at this point that he was in the custody of the Belarusian special forces, not the riot police, as he thought initially. If the officers didn’t like your name or your tattoos or even your face, permission to stretch or adjust positions was denied. “Later, they said any attempt to change positions would be treated as an attempt to escape, which meant being shot on the spot,” Telizhenko says.
After an hour-long wait (Telizhenko thinks the authorities didn’t know where to send them), the convoy finally started moving. On the road, the officers occasionally forced the prisoners to sing the Belarusian national anthem and filmed them on their phones. If they didn’t like the rendition, they beat everyone again. According to Telizhenko, some of the officers even rated the performances. “You fucking morons are sitting here and your Tikhanovskaya fucked off out of the country. You guys are done,” one of the escorts said.
The ride took two and a half hours.
In the van, knowing it would cost him another body blow, Telizhenko says he asked one of the officers why he’d been arrested and mistreated. “We’re just waiting for you to start setting fire to things in the streets,” the escort answered. “And then we’ll start shooting at you. We’ve got the order. There used to be a great country — the Soviet Union — and it died because of faggots like you. Because nobody put you in your place before it was too late. If you [Russians] think you can install your Tikhanovskaya here, then she’s put one over on you and you ought to know you won’t pull off a second Ukraine here. We won’t let Belarus become a part of Russia.”
“Enough torturing us! Just take us out and shoot us!” a young prisoner interrupted. The hours of abuse and humiliation had worn him down. “You won’t get off so easy, cocksucker,” the officer answered.
During the ride, Telizhenko says he realized that some of his escorts from the Belarusian special forces were pure sadists, while others believed devoutly that their service protects their homeland from enemies foreign and domestic. The officer who bothered to talk geopolitics with him was from this latter group.
“The whole way, we didn’t know where they were taking us — to a temporary detention facility, to a pretrial detention center, to prison, or maybe just to the nearest forest, where they’d either beat us half to death or kill us outright,” says Telizhenko, insisting that execution didn’t seem outlandish at the time. “There was a feeling that anything was possible,” he recalls.
Eventually, the convoy arrived at a prison and everyone was offloaded into a basement, where more officers and police dogs were waiting for them. This was the most frightening moment yet, says Telizhenko, but conditions at the prison turned out to be better than at the Minsk police station.
The men were then taken through a network of hallways and deposited in a prison yard where movies were playing for the other inmates. “By that point, this was almost heaven for us,” Telizhenko remembers. For the first time in a day, they could finally stretch their limbs. For the first time in hours, no one was beating them. Some needed the rest more than others: “One guy had a spinal injury from back at the station when the riot cops jumped on him. And they’d busted his knee; it was sticking out and just dangling there. So when we got to the courtyard, he just collapsed.”
At the prison, the detainees were given a bucket to relieve themselves. Some people in the group had been holding it in since they’d been arrested. The guards also brought them a 1.5-liter bottle of water. “It wasn’t much for 25 people, of course, but it was something,” says Telizhenko.
“You’re not going to beat us anymore today? one of the prisoners asked the official who brought the water. “No. You’ll just be sent to your cells and that’s it,” the person answered.
Now the prisoners started talking to each other — a luxury they were denied at the police station. “It turned out that I was there with entrepreneurs, I.T. specialists, locksmiths, two engineers, a construction worker, and some ex-cons,” Telizhenko says. One of these people said they’d been taken to a penitentiary in Zhodzina. He’d done time here before, he said.
Before long, a man in a uniform emerged and asked if there was a Nikita Telizhenko in the group. He was being released. Telizhenko’s cellmates cheered. Nikolai, the older man from before, was there, too. “Well, there you go. They’re finally getting you out,” he said.
The officer who fetched Telizhenko turned out to be a colonel in the Belarusian Department of Corrections. He was there to pick up another jailed Russian, as well (a correspondent from the state news agency RIA Novosti). On the way out of the prison, Telizhenko says he saw relatives and human rights activists assembled outside the gates. They were looking for different missing persons.
The colonel delivered the two Russian journalists to a Belarusian Migration Service official who explained that they had 90 minutes to leave the country or face criminal prosecution (though she was unable to explain what the charges would be). Either way, a jail sentence anywhere between 15 days and six months was on the table.
Further incarceration was averted, however, when an officer from the Russian embassy arrived. Explaining that the Russian ambassador himself had tracked down the two reporters by directly telephoning the Belarusian foreign minister, the diplomat packed the journalists into his car and drove them back to Russia, leaving them at a hotel in Smolensk. He bought them both hamburgers and was gone.