oDR: Feature

These Belarusian women are marking International Women’s Day in prison

Jailed activists describe their experiences of how the Belarus regime uses its harsh penal system to repress dissent

Yevgeniya Dolgaya
7 March 2023, 4.37pm

Hundreds of women have been convicted of political offences since Lukashenka cracked down on post-election protests in 2020


(c) Getty Images. All rights reserved

Olga Voitekhovich’s cell in a Minsk pre-trial detention centre is ten square metres – and she shares it with 15 other prisoners. She knows its dimensions because she measured it with some thread and a couple of matchboxes. She’s awaiting trial, accused of setting fire to a Belarusian MP’s house in 2021.

“The walls are dilapidated and they constantly crumble, and there’s a fungus on the walls,” explained her friend, another political prisoner, Olga Ritus.

Voitekhovich is set to become one of more than 500 Belarusian women to have been convicted in politically motivated prosecutions since the country’s stolen 2020 elections, in which president Alexander Lukashenka held onto power in a vote marred by fraud and the violent suppression of protests. During those protests, women held a series of peaceful marches and supported protesters.

This week, Voitekhovich stands trial together with her husband and children, who are also accused of tumped-up terrorism charges – a new way of stifling dissent in Belarus.

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Ritus, her friend, had acted as an independent observer at the 2020 elections, and later attended the protest marches that shook the regime as it scrambled to retain control.

Two years later, Belarusian police detained Ritus on her way to work – and beat her mercilessly.

“As I got out of my car, one of the police officers hit me on the head and told me to face the ground,” she recalled.

“Then in the station they hit me once more, and I fell over. And then they started kicking me.” She remembered how an officer dragged her down the corridor by her hair.

Ritus was transferred to a pre-trial detention centre, and then sentenced to three years of ‘home chemistry’ – a form of house arrest with strict restrictions on movement, including even going to the shops or taking out the rubbish. The name derives from a Soviet system in which some convicted people lived in dormitories rather than prison and worked in chemical factories.

Belarusian propaganda often claims that leader Alexander Lukashenka does not ‘fight women’. But as four political prisoners told openDemocracy, the Lukashenka regime has made their lives miserable – in revenge for taking a stand against the authorities.

You can cry here

Olga Ritus is now safe with her children in a European country – she was able to leave Belarus before her sentence came into force. But she still remembers the women she met in pre-trial detention.

“I held on during the interrogations; I didn’t cry. But when I was taken to a prison cell and I saw the eyes of women just like me, I felt warm. I exhaled. They told me: ‘You can cry here.’ And I burst into tears from the realisation that these are people who can support me.”

The crumbling mattresses, lack of sunlight and bunk beds stacked close together made for a depressing atmosphere.

“I noticed that all the girls had very pale skin, almost transparent,” Ritus said. “Then my skin became like that too, because you just sit there, without light, in a closed space, in constant anxiety.


Olga Ritus is now outside the country


Image: BYSOL

“It isn’t clear what’s happening on the street, what the weather’s like and what time of the year it is. Your life is limited to the shabby walls of a cell with a light on at all times. So you’re very happy to get bright postcards, because over time, bright colours are forgotten in this dullness.”

In the pre-trial detention centre, women are taken to the showers once a week – on Mondays. Other days, they have to rely on water from a plastic bottle. Ritus recalled, “When a new girl came to our cell, she always smelled delicious: soap, perfume, clean hair, home.”

But however poor the conditions are in pre-trial detention, the real test can begin for political prisoners after conviction.

Forced labour

Belarus has two prison colonies for women – one in Homiel, in the east of the country, and another in nearby Rechytsa. If it’s your first conviction, you’re sent to the Homiel colony, while those convicted for a second time go to Rechytsa. There are currently 54 women political prisoners in the country, according to the Viasna centre.

Both colonies operate forced labour regimes: women have to work at a garment factory, sewing uniforms for the Belarusian security forces. According to Belarusian human rights centre Viasna, work assignments at the factory are heavy, and the women have no days off.

The prison administration also tries to force political prisoners to sign a document admitting their guilt. According to the prisoners openDemocracy spoke to, the administration pushes for a person to admit their guilt already in a correctional institution.

Irina Polyanina served a two-year term in Rechytsa after being convicted of insulting a public official – she posted a comment under an online photo of a Belarusian law enforcement officer. She said she “was put under severe pressure in the colony”, working 14 hours a day at the garment factory.

Collage Maker-07-Mar-2023-04-29-PM-6291

Left to right: Alena Maushuk, Irina Polyanina, Anna Vishnyak


Source: Social media

At one point she went into cardiac arrest from the strain. “When I woke up in the hospital, I was very worried about my elderly mother. I thought about what a shock it would be for her if she found out that my heart had stopped” she recalled.

Aside from the punishing work schedule, political prisoners face other forms of pressure. Olga Ritus remembers how Belarusian law enforcement threatened that if her son, who lives in Poland, came to the country – he would be arrested.

But it can go much further than that.

In Rechytsa, Polyanina met another prisoner, Alena Maushuk, who, together with her husband, had been sentenced to six years for protesting against the Lukashenka regime. They have five children, two of whom are minors – a boy of eight and a girl of ten.

In December 2022, Maushuk and her husband were deprived of their parental rights without their knowledge. Their children were sent to be raised by their eldest daughter. If her eldest daughter had not pushed for this, the children would have been sent to an orphanage.

Depriving political prisoners of parental rights is a practice that is gaining momentum in Belarus. Another political prisoner, Victoria Onukhova-Zhuravleva, is the mother of 13 children, nine of whom are adopted. She was sentenced to three years of ‘home chemistry’ on slander charges after she wrote online that Lukashenka was “killing his own people” following the death of a protester in 2020.

When she violated the rules of ‘home chemistry’, the authorities removed Onukhova-Zhuravleva’s adopted children from her care. Because of her conviction, the authorities will not let her take the adopted children back.

Isolation cell

Former political prisoners say that the worst punishment in the Belarusian prison system is the isolation cell.

Prisoners are sent there for breaking prison rules, but it is often used as a form of pressure on political prisoners. Prisoners do not receive calls, parcels or letters; the light is switched on constantly; and prisoners do not receive any bed clothes. Indeed, prisoners are forbidden from sitting on the floor – and can receive new punishment for doing so.

Speaking to openDemocracy, former political prisoner Anna Vishnyak called the isolation cell a form of “legalised torture”.

“First they give you ten days [in the isolation cell], then they extend it. All this time you are starved and cold,” Vishnyak recalled. She was sent to the isolation cell on numerous occasions while in the Homiel prison colony.

“There are holes in the windows. You have to sit on concrete on an iron beam – it’s covered with frost. I got there at the beginning of the month, stayed for 26 days, and from there I was sent to the medical unit,” she said.


Two years on from the post-election crackdown, there are over 1,000 political prisoners in Belarus today


(c) Getty Images. All rights reserved

According to Vishnyak, doctors at the prison medical unit had said she “would lose a kidney” if she was sent back there after her 26-day stay. Thankfully, she was given medical treatment, and eventually released.

Vishnyak had originally been convicted for participating in the anti-regime protests. Throughout her sentence, she was not allowed to meet relatives or even call them.

She left Belarus immediately after her release. She said she had been scared to stay in the country, and is now in Poland trying to rebuild her life.

Punishment at home

‘Home chemistry’ may seem the most harmless form of punishment that the Lukashenka regime has to offer, but those sentenced to it experience strong limitations to their freedom.

The rules are as follows: you can only leave home to go to work from 6am to 7pm Monday to Friday, and you must take a strictly agreed route. Two hours a day are given for visiting clinics, pharmacies, shops, banks, post offices and so on. On Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, you are not allowed to go out at all.

During the time you are meant to be at home, an inspector can visit you at any time, according to Anna*, who is currently serving a three-year term of ‘home chemistry’.


Several hundred women are currently serving 'home chemistry' sentences in Belarus


(c) Natalia Kolesnikova / Getty Images. All rights reserved

“You never know when [the inspector] will come,” she said. “Or maybe they already came, but you didn’t hear them knock. This is the most difficult situation, because they can use any excuse to give a violation. They can check in at any time of the day. But more often they come at night.”

Anna complained that while the inspectors are meant to follow certain rules: “In practice, they can’t actually explain these rules – or they don’t want to.”

In the end, she said, “Everything depends on the inspectors themselves: how educated they are, and whether they have retained their human qualities.”

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