"The happiest moment of detention was being put into a cell"

Vitali Tsyhankou,
observer of Radio Liberty's Belarus Service
"The happiest moment of detention was being put into a cell"
Vitali Tsyhankou,
observer of Radio Liberty's Belarus Service
On August 12, 2020 Vitali and his wife Olga were detained in a car by traffic police officers. A pistol was put to Olga's head, and Vitali was beaten. Then came the police department and “24 hours" in the pre-trial detention centre on Okrestina Street…
Unlike many reporters, my detention had nothing to do with journalistic activities. We were detained on 12 August, the last day of a series of terrible repressions of demonstrations. We were, in the end, lucky not to experience the gravest tortures. But we did not know that at the time.
"The traffic policemen's gun was 30 cm from my wife's head"
My wife Olga and I were driving down Dzerzhinsky Avenue in our car when we heard the traffic police signalling us. We considered it a demand to stop. Olga was driving. We tried to change the lane to the right, but we did not manage to do it right away. It must have made the traffic policeman angry. When we stopped, he jumped out of the car. His eyes were completely wild, his face was red. He cried, "Step out of the car! Open the trunk!" He did not introduce himself, did not show any documents, and did not ask us to show our documents. My wife opened the driver's door window and said, "Maybe there is no need to go out? Let me show you the documents through the window."

But the traffic policeman continued shouting, stuck his hand in the open window and started to grab Olga. I do not know what he wanted to do: reach for the key and pull it out? To open the door from the inside? As a result, Olga got a bruise on her arm, which she has a medical certificate confirming.

In a couple of seconds, I saw that the policeman had a weapon. He was holding it and kept on shouting.

"He has a gun," I said to my wife. Olga turned around and saw the gun about 20-30 centimetres from her head. Instinctively, out of fear, out of shock, she hit the gas. She had never had a gun close to her head before!

A couple of metres away, I shouted to my wife, "We'd better stop, or they are going to shoot or hit us. Stop the car!" And she shouted in response, "I'm going to stop when I see some people around!" So we stopped in Myasnikov Street, near the Music Theatre.
"I am a journalist! I do not resist!"
We were immediately surrounded with three traffic police cars. I stepped out of the car, saying loudly, "I am a Radio Liberty journalist! I am not resisting arrest!"

It was all I managed to say. They twisted my arms behind my back in a professional way, threw me down, put a knee on me and put the cuffs on.

I kept saying: I am not resisting. But I was punched on the head anyway, probably for their gratification. Then they started to pull everything out of my pockets: my wallet, glasses, phone, and documents. They continued beating me on the back of the head, on the temple, in the eye.

All this time I was thinking with fear: what's happening with Olga? I managed to look at her and reassure myself that she was not being beaten: my wife was standing on her feet.

Before they threw me into a car and took me to the police station, I saw that all of my things had been thrown out of the trunk of the car and onto the ground.
"A moment ago you were just an ordinary citizen, and suddenly you are nothing"
Olga was brought to the same police station, but in another car. We were sitting in front of the turnstile, discussing what had just happened. A man came up and told us it was time to go through the necessary formalities. He was calm and polite.

We passed the turnstile, and everything changed drastically. A moment ago you were just an ordinary citizen, and suddenly you are nothing: you are like dust on the shoes of these people. I have been an opposition journalist for 25 years now, but I have never been put into jail before. I have always been saved by my press credentials.

I heard a wild scream, "Hands on the wall! Legs shoulder width apart!" I put my legs apart, and someone started hitting me on the legs. I must have put them insufficiently wide.

Then they took us to the assembly hall and made us sit down on chairs. I sat down, and suddenly I heard a scream from behind: "Why is your head up? Put it down!" I did not know who they were shouting at. And then, suddenly, a blow to the head. So, it was for me. I put my head down, put my hands on the seat in front of me.

My wife Olga was in the same room. There were only two girls there. They were treated less violently.

We had to sit for a very long time. New detainees were brought into the hall. I could only see their legs. Blue trousers meant angry policemen. Green ones – soldiers of internal troops, who were a bit kinder.

The main thing was not to let the fear overwhelm me. To cope with things, I tried to think what would happen next, what I would say before the court.
"You say another word, and we'll gas you"
The happiest moment of that detention was being put into a cell, about one and a half metres wide and three metres long. It was great to be there. There was no threat of getting hit without warning, at least. I curled up and even managed to get some sleep. After that, we were sitting and talking. People were telling their stories. There was a person who had been in jail before. He calmed us down and said that life in prison was not that bad, and asked the wardens to let us use the latrine.

Later my wife told me she heard someone from the neighbouring cell ask to go to the toilet. The response was, "You say another word, and we'll gas you." That's the kind of jokes they tell. Or maybe those were not jokes?
"Such a great feeling – just to lay down on your stomach, with your face down"
In the morning, they woke us up and brought us to Okrestina detention centre. After leaving the bus, we found ourselves in a yard, and were ordered to kneel with our heads down and arms behind our back. We remained this way for a very long time. Over that time, they approached me six or seven times and asked the same questions: about my surname and place of work. Then they left.

To pass the time, I wrote future articles in my mind, analysed the situation. I thought that just yesterday morning I was a speaker at an event in a luxury hotel, had eaten an expensive dish in a restaurant, and now I was lying here on the ground, and at any time could be beaten for no reason whatsoever.

After a while, I heard a voice say, "Are there any journalists?" I said, "Yes, Tsygankov."

"Radio Liberty?" I heard in response. Then I understood that they recognized me. "Vitaliy, I am from the Ministry of Internal Affairs press service, we will release you now."

After that, I was allowed to sit. I felt a bit ashamed that my cellmates were lying on the floor, and I was sitting.

I told the Ministry's press secretary that my wife was also there, she also had to be released. I would not go until she was released. Olga was also allowed out in the end. I accidentally turned my head and saw her being led down the corridor. My son, my father-in-law, and my colleagues came to pick me up.

Right from the car, I hosted a live stream for Radio Liberty.
"At first, I was scared even to go out to buy some food"
All my life, I have believed that my psychological state was under control. But when someone gets bitten by a spider, they start fearing spiders. During the first days, even if we needed to go out to buy some food, we never went alone. If we saw a traffic police car, we felt uncomfortable. It seemed to us that plainclothesmen were everywhere. But now, I have learned to cope with it.

From a legal point of view, my wife and I still have problems. We have received a decision on her driver's license – revocation for two years – and a fine of BYN 400. Of course, we are going to appeal...
Photo by Press Club Belarus

Published October 2020