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'Is that leg really broken?' Rights group documents detainee abuse in Belarus

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

A construction worker, a web designer, a college student, an engineer - these Belarusians had little in common, but human rights activists say they shared a similar fate: abuse, humiliation and, in some cases, outright torture at the hands of their jailers.

Largely peaceful protests erupted last month in the former Soviet republic after authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory - a fraudulent win, according to the opposition. Thousands of demonstrators were swept up in a wave of arrests.

Now a leading human rights group has compiled one of the most detailed dossiers yet on the ill treatment of hundreds of detainees, some of whom recounted harrowing beatings, electric shocks, squalid jailhouse conditions and sexual abuse in the protests' early days.

"Is this leg really broken?" a 35-year-old construction worker said jeering riot police asked him as they trampled on and poked his shattered limb.

A 28-year-old woman, who was trapped in a jail cell so tightly packed that the occupants could barely move or breathe, said guards responded to their pleas for more space by dousing them with cold water.

An 18-year-old college student said police broke his nose with a kick to the face, then sliced open his trousers and threatened to rape him with a grenade.

 

The report by Human Rights Watch, released Tuesday, comes as international agencies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council are preparing to debate events in Belarus, but activists are hoping to spur formal investigations. Although the European Union is readying sanctions, Lukashenko is defying opposition demands that he step aside.

Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, apparently hoped that a harsh crackdown in the protests' initial phase would terrorize people into staying off the streets. That was a shock tactic that worked in the past, said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies - but this time around, it seemingly backfired.

"The initial protest was not that massive," she said. But the more reports have emerged of abuse in detention centers, "the more people go onto the streets and express solidarity."

She cited scenarios such as students being detained and beaten - and subsequent outrage over their treatment propelling their parents and professors into the streets.

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