"What I saw in that cell, I had wanted to see my whole life!"
Uladzimir Laptsevich, journalist, 6tv.by – Mogilev region
"WHAT I SAW IN THAT CELL, I HAD WANTED TO SEE MY WHOLE LIFE!"
Uladzimir Laptsevich, journalist, 6tv.by – Mogilev region
Uladzimir Laptsevich, a journalist from 6tv.by, the Mogilev region internet portal, has been detained three times since August 2020, twice violently. He spent a total of 25 days in prison. The journalist was detained the first time for coming to the District Department of Internal Affairs to find out about his colleague. The second time, for covering a protest rally in Mogilev. And the third time, because he was released early during his first arrest and was sent to complete the term. Uladzimir told us his story.
I was detained four days before 9 August. So all the violence we saw August 9-11 in Belarus was no surprise for me: our so-called law enforcement agencies had been ready to turn to absolutely unjustified violence exceeding any reasonable measure long before the election.
Their main goal was not neutralising protests, but rather punishing people for expressing an opinion. It is hard to find another explanation because those protests were markedly peaceful. People did not smash any shop windows, did not burn cars, did not overturn kiosks or anything like that.
"Nobody explained to me the reason for my detainment and why I was being beaten"
As for me, even though I was to a certain extent theoretically prepared for the law enforcement officers to be violent towards me, that violence was, ultimately, unexpected: I had no clue why violence was needed.
Because when they beat you for no reason, it is always a shock, a source of stress. You are appalled, you don't understand and no one explains anything.
It all happened on the evening of August 5 when I found out that our journalist Aliaksandr Burakou had been detained and taken to Leninskoe District Department of Internal Affairs in Mahiliou. Since I am part of the legal team of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, all such incidents involving journalists fall within my scope of responsibility and I have to monitor the situation and try to influence it.
When I arrived at the Leninskoe District Department of Internal Affairs, Aliaksandr Burakou was already there. As well as our fellow human rights defender Barys Bukhel from Mahiliou. We approached the entrance to the building and asked about Burakou. We were told to wait for him to come out and he'd tell us everything first hand.
There was a note on the doors of the Department saying that "due to the difficult epidemiological situation, entrance to the District Department of Internal Affairs is permitted one person at a time". We considered it outrageous – because, according to president Lukashenka, coronavirus is mere psychosis [the Belarusian president had publicly dismissed the significance of the virus - Ed.] – so we decided to make a complaint in the log book of complaints and suggestions. I entered the building alone. After I made the complaint and left the building, Barys and I waited for the news about Burakou.
After about 15-20 minutes a police officer approached me with the log book of complaints and suggestions. I should note that at that time, we already stood on the pavement outside the territory of the Department. So the officer asked whether it was me who had made the complaint. I confirmed it. He asked me to follow him to be questioned regarding my complaint. We went upstairs to the third floor and to some classroom with a lot of desks. Later, when I was re-detained, I found out it was a room where district officers gather.
The officer sat at one of the desks and I sat on a chair in a row along the wall. And I started waiting to be questioned. I don't know how much time passed, because they took my phone at the entrance to the building. I asked why I hadn't been questioned yet. He said another officer was coming with a paper and a pen to do things properly.
After a while I started to suspect no one was going to question me at all. I stood up, said I didn't want to be questioned and refused to give any explanations. As soon as I tried to leave, the officer – a police major – tried to detain me and grabbed my arms. I managed to leave the room and make several steps before two officers in civil clothes ran towards me from another room. As I found out later, one of them was the head of the Law Enforcement and Prevention Department, Timur Pakhomenka. He grabbed my arms and forced me back into the same classroom. Then he sat me back on a chair violently. For some reason he took my glasses off and put them on a desk saying things would get worse if I moved.
I was appalled by such an approach. Nobody answered my questions. I sat there for a while and, since I had received no explanation whatsoever about why I was detained and not yet released, I stood up again and tried to leave the classroom. This time, three officers in civilian clothes came with Palhomenka among them. I was forced back into the same classroom with even more violence and thrown on the desk closest to the door. I banged my head, my arms were twisted behind my back, I was cuffed and thrown on the floor by the same Timur Pakhomenka. He also threatened me with a "swallow" if I moved. [a torture position in which you are suspended by your cuffed wrists from behind - Ed.]
During all this time no one told me what my status was and the reason for my detention. It became clear to me that I had indeed been detained when they'd cuffed me. The question was why?
Other officers started to gather in the classroom – district officers, as far as I could tell, because they were wearing uniforms. I asked them to help me get up off the floor. They were unwilling at first, but eventually, after numerous requests, I was sat up and on a chair. Naturally, I kept quiet. I waited as three hours passed and those waiting for me outside started to worry, as well as my family.
Then another officer came, uncuffed me and we proceeded to processing. He told me I was detained under Article 23.4 of the Administrative Code for disobedience to a lawful demand of a police officer.
"Questioning regarding my complaint had turned into detention"
While I was being processed, I found out what my disobedience had been. It turned out I had been trying to break into the Leninskoe District Department of Internal Affairs and it was possible to let me in only when I wouldn't let the door be closed. So in their account, an officer had been present at the entrance and opened the door to let in one person at a time while I allegedly wouldn't let him close the door, had tried to break into the building and demanded he produce the log book of complaints and suggestions. Yet once I allegedly had managed to get inside the building, nobody did anything about it, they produced the log book of complaints but were forced to detain me later through my "bad behaviour". That's how "enquiries regarding my complaint" fraudulently turned into detention.
Later, when I was in a police cell – the so-called "monkey cage" – I decided to start a hunger strike to protest against how they had treated me.
After about three in the morning, I was taken to the detention centre. When we got there, they asked me if I had any complaints – the usual procedure. I said I had a headache.
When they asked me what happened I said the police officers had beaten me.
Due to the criminal nature of my injuries – I stated that they were inflicted by police officers – I was also taken to the Mahiliou Interdistrict Department of the Investigative Committee. I explained the situation there, but it looked more like a statement of crime. Later a pre-investigation inspection was initiated in this regard.
I received a certificate with the record of my injuries and the investigator issued an order for a forensic examination. Then I was taken to the temporary detention centre.
There I started a hunger strike and made it official: I submitted an application to the head of the temporary detention centre stating I was fasting and asking to accept no packages with food from my family, only water and medicines. I also showed the order for forensic examination.
After that I was placed in a cell for two where I was alone throughout.
I was not taken for forensic examination until the day of the court proceedings. Even though I submitted an additional request for that.
The court proceedings took place August 7 at the court of the Leninsky district of Mahiliou. Judge Elena Litvina, who is now subject to sanctions by the European Union, ruled 12 days of custody. My colleagues saw all my injuries. One of our journalists, Ales Sabaleuski, handed me the rules of conduct at places of administrative detention. Those rules stated that employees of the temporary detention centre must provide all the medical examinations required by a detainee. Otherwise the detainee can submit a complaint to the prosecutor.
I re-submitted my complaint with the addition of a clause saying the forensic examination had not yet been conducted while the injuries were fading and that I reserved the right to submit an application to the prosecutor based on such and such clause of the rules of conduct. Next day, they took me for the forensic examination.
All injuries still visible – some had already faded – were recorded during the forensic examination. And when I was released from the temporary detention centre, the investigator questioned me according to my statement. But still no case was opened.
I disputed the refusal to open a criminal case to the prosecutor's office. The prosecution office initially stated that the case was under inspection at the regional directorate and they could not tell me anything until they received it.
On November 23, I received a letter from the prosecutor's office. It said that all the materials of the previous inspection had been examined and they had come to the conclusion that the inspection was incomplete, and that the order denying opening a criminal case had been annulled and the materials sent for re-inspection. I hope – even though the hope is not strong – that the person responsible for beating me will be brought to justice.
I spent only 10 of 12 days under arrest that time: everyone detained under Articles 23.34 and 23.4 were released 14 and 15 August. Later I submitted a complaint regarding the reason for my early release.
I looked through all the codes and rules and found no legal grounds for early release.
I received a response to my complaint from the regional directorate of internal affairs: in exceptional cases, when there is no possibility to keep all the detainees, they may be released. It is an odd response because there was always the possibility to keep all the detainees. Besides the Temporary Detention Centre of the Directorate of Internal Affairs of Mahiliou Regional executive Committee, detainees could be kept either at the detention centre nearby or in other temporary detention centres in the region.
Released early in August and in November detained violently to complete the term
November 6 I was detained again to complete two days of the term of my arrest in August. And that detainment was violent. I don't understand why they needed to be violent when they could simply summon me. Another interesting fact: in my earlier complaint I asked not to send me to complete these two days because they had released me early not by my initiative or will.
Nevertheless, they detained me. They stopped me when I was driving out of the yard of my residential building. They said they had an order for me to spend two days in detention. I agreed and asked to park my car first and leave my things and documents at home, change clothes. They let me, but when I was on my way home, they suddenly blocked my way with their car. I didn't even reach the door of my entrance hallway. They just forced me in their car. So I just dropped all my things near the entrance hallway and my neighbours took them and gave them to my family.
They took me to the District Department of Internal Affairs and threatened to open another administrative case for disobedience if I were to move. Quite soon I was moved from the District Department of Internal Affairs to the temporary detention centre. These two days again I spent alone in a cell for two.
The third detention, for 13 days
Being a journalist of 6tv.by, the Mahiliou region internet portal, I covered the rally on 23 September. Afterwards I sent all my photos and comments to my editor and headed home.
On September 27, I arrived to cover another rally but wasn't able to: I was detained before people had even gathered. The rally itself hadn't started yet. Some people who had arrived early were detained preventatively. I photographed those detentions. Eventually, I was picked up too and taken to the District Department of Internal Affairs. They stated that earlier that month, 23 September, I had taken part in an unauthorised mass event punishable under Article 23.34.
The court proceedings were conducted via Skype, though there were people present in the chambers of judge Natalia Ponasenko attending the proceedings. All my petitions were ignored. I cited a witness who had seen me photographing and I stated the time of detainment was different from the one stated in the administrative case materials. Besides, I had demanded my rights to be explained to me during the detention: police officers must explain the rights to each administrative detainee. They usually just give you a paper to sign. But since the majority of detainees are not legal experts, a police officer is supposed to explain those rights. My rights had not been explained to me, which I stated in the protocol.
The judge completely ignored all of that. She also ignored the fact that my phone was seized, even though any decision on further actions with regard to arrested property is supposed to be made by the court.
The judge ruled 13 days of arrest based on a one-second video clip showing me walking. The video showed no crowd, just me walking with a phone in my hand. The judge considered that enough evidence of my participation in a mass event where people were walking, waving their arms and shouting.
"What I saw in that cell, I had wanted to see my whole life!"
These 13 days were much more interesting than the previous ones, especially the first two. I found myself among a group of young men, much younger than me. And I would never imagine that these guys would be so involved in politics, human rights. Practically each of them knew the constitution - they had actually read it. I was impressed! I had never expected 25-year-olds to be that interested in such documents. And they were ordinary men: a postman, a long-distance trucker, a cook… I tried to help them with their complaints and so forth.
I think what I saw in that cell I had wanted to see my whole life! All these people cared about their rights. Unfortunately, most of my life I have spent among people with absolutely no interest in human rights or Belarusian politics. It seems the situation has changed now. And these people around me filled me with inspiration.
It is true that the situation in the country is getting worse and gloomier. It is a time of political reaction. Having received permission to beat and maybe even kill people with impunity, security officers are going to act more and more brutally. I don't know what this will come to, but the forecast for the immediate future is not optimistic. No doubt, democracy and human rights will prevail. A brighter future will dawn. The question is when it will happen.
Photo by Press Club Belarus
Published December 2020
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