Ways of punishing dissent in Lukashenka’s Belarus

Illustration made by GlobalVoices with OpenAI

Belarus is not a country that has attracted a lot of attention from the international media of late, but the regime of dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues to repress Belarusians in many ways, some of them unheard of since Soviet totalitarianism.

In March, Lukashenka signed a bill that introduces capital punishment for state officials and military personnel who are found guilty of committing acts of high treason. Belarus is the only country in Europe that has not banned capital punishment. The new law is part of a series of changes to the criminal code that aim to bolster Belarus’ efforts to combat “crimes of an extremist [terrorist] and anti-state orientation.”  The bill, supposedly, was a follow-up of the attack on a Russian warplane, allegedly made by Belarusian guerrillas. In February 2023, Belarusian activists claimed that they deliberately inflicted significant harm on a Russian surveillance aircraft when it was stationed on an airfield, possibly employed in monitoring Ukraine, through an act of sabotage within Belarus. Neither Minsk nor Moscow has reacted so far.

However, apart from threatening capital punishment, the regime has a number of other ways to punish Belarusians for any kind of protest. Some of these are specific to the Belarusian dictatorship.

Home-based chemistry

For instance, every Belarusian know the phrase “home-based chemistry.” The term, as Politzek wrote, was used in the USSR, when being sent to work in the chemical industry was a common punishment. As Mediazona explained, home-based chemistry is a form of punishment in which a convicted individual is not imprisoned but subjected to restrictions. When used in the USSR, the person would usually end up in the chemical industry, but this is not the case anymore. The individual is given a set schedule for work and personal activities, which includes mundane tasks such as going to the store or taking out the trash. To ensure compliance, law enforcement officers may conduct unannounced checks at any time of the day. There are two types of such punishment.  One is when a person stays at home but has to follow strict regime, rules and schedule, report about it and work according to it.  Another is when a person is sent to some difficult remote place of work for a period of time, and has to live and work there.

Belsat media described the life of one of such convict, former IT-sector professional.  He was not given a choice to continue working at his former office, and was instead sent to a farming collective. He said in an interview with Belsat:

We had to work a minimum of 80 hours per week, and sometimes even more for those considered “political’ prisoners. Our schedule could stretch up to eight consecutive days, starting from 5:00 in the morning until 17:30 in the evening. It was documented officially in our report card, which is a form of slavery. Moreover, working with waste products from animals such as pigs and cows is hazardous to one's health. People working in such conditions experience rapid physical deterioration.

Mediazona has also interviewed some of the people whose punishment for political dissent was home-based chemistry. Ekaterina was allowed to continue working at her workplace.  However, she had to report her work schedule to a police inspector. The latter could also demand a report from her employer that detailed her work schedule and the number of hours worked. She was allowed to travel to and from work within allocated  time, and any free time she had was regulated by the inspector.

Ekaterina told Mediazona:

On weekday mornings, I have a 40-minute window to commute to work. In the evening, I have another 40 minutes to return home, followed by a two-hour allowance for personal tasks like shopping or attending to household matters. While I haven't been checked at work, it's a possibility. My employer submits a weekly schedule of my working hours, which the inspector can use to verify if I was present on a given day.

Therapeutic and labor dispensaries

The website Politzek Times (“politzek” means political prisoners), was created by activists from Belarus to record stories of those tortured by the regime. They published a story about another type of imprisonment that the regime allegedly uses — so-called therapeutic and labor dispensaries. Politzek interviewed one of such convicts, Vitaly.

Because he made a derogatory remark about Lukashenka, Vitaliy was sentenced and consigned to a therapeutic and labor dispensary.  Vitaly said that these dispensaries, which are usually used to detain individuals who have violated drug or alcohol-related public orders, are also now used as punishment for political dissent in Belarus. Sending political dissidents to psychiatric hospitals or clinics similar to the dispensary that is described here used to be a widely used punishment in the Soviet regime.

In truth, Vitaly claimed, such places are hidden concentration camps where people are used for forced labor. While Vitaliy says that it is difficult to verify this information and conduct an investigation, he insists that his experience is only the tip of the iceberg.

Camp conditions are grueling. Prisoners sleep in a barracks-like common room surrounded by a high fence with barbed wire. The police guard everything. The toilets often don't work, and the wash basins only have ice-cold water. The food is terrible, and the prisoners are obliged to wash their bowls in the icy water without any detergent. They are also punished for not meeting production quotas by being placed in a punishment cell known as ShIZO.

Torture and inhuman conditions in detention centers

Belarusian human rights movement Viasna has described the horrible conditions that people detained for political dissent face in a state temporary detention center (called Akrescina) while awaiting trial. They report that the detention conditions at Akrescina amount to torture. Detainees are kept in inhumane conditions without access to basic hygiene products or clean clothes for the duration of their 28-month detention. Rather than releasing them after their initial arrest, authorities continually “carousel” detainees by adding more small charges, subjecting them to further detention periods.

Those awaiting their criminal charges in the temporary detention center are forced to sleep on the cold, hard floor of the notorious punishment cell, without bedding, fresh air, or warm clothing, and sometimes without food or showers. Even when they are moved to the “normal” cells, which are already overcrowded, detainees are not given adequate living conditions, such as bedding or access to showers or outdoor walks. Instead, they are forced to sleep on the floor, under beds, and on benches. Homeless individuals are also put in these cells to further crowd them.

The cells are under constant surveillance, with guards monitoring detainees through peepholes and video cameras. Detainees are not given warm water, and the tap water is not suitable for drinking. Those arrested at home are often not allowed to bring basic hygiene products, such as toothbrushes, and are forced to improvise with what they have in their cell.

Parcels are not permitted, and medical aid is not provided, despite the fact that many detainees arrive at the Akrescina detention center badly beaten. Their only source of information is the arrival of new cellmates each day. These conditions have been deemed torture by human rights defenders.

Viasna interviewed some people who went through the detention centres.  One of them recalled:

In the ‘political’ cells in the Offender Isolation Center and Temporary Detention Center, detainees are still not allowed to sleep: the lights are never off and the roll calls are at 2 and 4 in the morning. This is sleep torture. The most brutal thing is that there are a lot of people in the cell. They do it consciously—they purposefully stuff the cells with people.

In March 2023, Belarusian human rights defenders spoke at the OSCE conference about the torture of political prisoners. As the representative of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Anastasia Dziubanava said, the human rights situation in Belarus has significantly deteriorated over the past two years.

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