Overcrowded and violent: what awaits Belarusian protesters in prison

Thousands of people have been detained in Belarus' pro-democracy protesters - and hundreds are facing charges. The prison system that will take them is largely unreformed and has its roots in the Soviet system.

Judith Pallot
20 November 2020, 12.01am
Akrestsina detention centre in Minsk, one of the main sites of violence against people detained during Belarus' pro-democracy protests
(c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Since August, the prison system in Belarus has hit international news headlines. Many protesters against the outcome of the presidential election have been arrested and held in police cells, detention centres and remand prisons.

The number of people arrested has reached over 16,000. There have been numerous reports of how they have been subject to brutal physical and psychological abuse and confined to overcrowded and unhygienic cells. The majority of protesters have been held on administrative charges that allows them to be detained for up to 15 days. The use of administrative arrest and punishment against peaceful demonstrators violates rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Belarus is a signatory.

In addition to the thousands who have suffered administrative penalty, approximately 700 individuals, detained in pre-trial prisons, are being investigated for criminal offences. Notwithstanding the release of seven of those held in the KGB prison, who participated in Lukashenko’s “Potemkin” round table a week or so ago, the auguries for protesters’ facing criminal charges are not at all good.

Conditions in Belarus’ pre-trial prisons are notoriously inhumane and the sudden addition of hundreds of new alleged offenders to already over-crowded facilities can only worsen the conditions of people awaiting trial. The prominent human rights activists, journalists and political opponents who are detained in the KGB prison are at particular risk of receiving severe sentences. But the prospects for everyone facing criminal charges are not good. In one of the first cases to come to court, a 60-year old protester was sentenced to four years in a general regime colony by a court in the city of Zhlobin. His crime was that he threw a bottle at a police officer during one of the August demonstrations.

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The question that arises from the Zhlobin case is what awaits the protesters if, or more likely when, they are found guilty. I direct a project funded by the European Research Council called Gulagechoes. The project’s team of five researchers are examining the different trajectories that have been followed in the post-Soviet states away from the Soviet penal model, and how they affect the lives in detention of prisoners from different social and ethnic backgrounds. Of all the post-Soviet states, Estonia has travelled furthest from the Soviet model, replacing all its Soviet-era penitentiaries with three modern prisons. But, if we are looking for an example of a prison system that is firmly stuck in the Soviet time-warp, Belarus is the only real candidate.

First, some background to Belarus’ prison system. According to the World Prison Brief in October 2018, there were 32,500 prisoners detained in both pre-trial and correctional institutions in Belarus, giving it an imprisonment rate of 383 per 100 000 population. This is the highest in Europe. There are 16 correctional colonies spread across Belarus divided into two categories - general and enhanced regime and strict regime. There is also one juvenile colony, three correctional settlements for people convicted for minor and “accidental” offences, and 30 “open” prison colonies (known colloquially as “the chemicals” or khimii), and three cellular-type prisons for the most severe offenders. Election protesters can end up in any of these, depending upon the articles under which they are convicted, the degree of political involvement in their placement, their gender and age.

Belarus’ penitentiaries differ in fundamental ways from the prisons of “old” Europe. The majority were established during the Soviet period. Today’s penitentiaries occupy the same sites, and in some cases, the same buildings as their gulag predecessors. The basic building-blocks of the Soviet system of prisoner management – the principles of collectivism, militarism and correction through labour – have carried through to the present day.

What this means for the convicted protesters is that they will be transported to a correctional colony where they will serve their sentence as a member of the detachment (otryad) to which they are assigned. On arrival, they will have to endure a two-week period of quarantine during which they will be assessed and inducted into the regime. The assessment includes determining their fitness for work, what skills they have, their health and, importantly, whether they are likely to be “regime conformists” or “regime violators”. The detachment is both a physical living space and a social formation consisting, if legal norms are applied, of 100 prisoners who sleep, eat, and are assembled on the parade ground for headcounts twice daily, marched to work, socialise and are targeted for interventions, together. From the quarantine induction and the prisoners in their detachment, the protesters will learn that if they violate internal regime rules, they will be confined to a cramped, cold and dehumanising punishment cell.

The Belarusian prison service, which is part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, publishes no information about its prisoner population so we have to rely on witness accounts to describe life in Belarus’ penitentiaries. One is Ivan, in his thirties, who has lived outside Belarus since his release. I interviewed him in the summer of 2020. At that time, he had been clear, for two years, of the drug and alcohol addiction that had resulted in seven convictions and four custodial sentences, the first of which he served when only 14 years old.

Initially, Ivan was a rule-breaker who contested the regime. In the early years of his “prison career”, he self-harmed in protest, cutting his wrists and drinking chlorine. He also jumped out of a three-story window from a courtroom when faced with being returned to prison, which resulted in three months in prison hospital. Ivan’s protests led to conflicts with the zavkhoz, the name given to prisoners appointed by the administration to liaise with personnel. The zavkhoz and the other prisoner “activists” around him oversees daily life in the communal dormitories. He can exercise immense power over other prisoners, especially after the supervisory personnel go home. The authorities laud this placing of power in the hands as an example of democratic self-government. But the scope it gives for bullying and humiliation that our interviewees tell us about is probably nearer the mark.

Ivan wrote complaints about his treatment, but soon learned that complaining only brought retribution. “By my second sentence,” he tells me, “I already knew what happened when you complained. Two days later a prison officer would come and call up one of the activists who would give you a black-eye.”

By the time of his last conviction, Ivan was well versed in the “folkways” of prison life in Belarus and knew how to get around the rules he didn’t like. Work is obligatory for the able-bodied in Belarus’ prisons, but prisoners earn minuscule wages. Ivan didn’t want to work but nevertheless, five days a week, he would have to march to the prison workshops to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s Slavonic March. Evidently, supervision was poor in the clothing factory he was assigned to, so instead of sitting at his sewing machine, Ivan would spend the workday visiting people he knew in different workshops, keeping an eye out for the charge-hands. As he explains, as far as personnel were concerned, their job was done so long as all the prisoners were where they were meant to be at the right time, according to the regime timetable.

There is a lot in Ivan’s description of his experiences that will sound familiar to students of the Russian prison system, but there are important differences. Those that come immediately to mind are the following:

  1. Unlike a majority of the former communist countries in Europe, Belarus, is not a member of the Council of Europe – it still has the death penalty which is an automatic bar to its membership. This means that it is not subject to the same requirements as Russia to bring its prison system in line with the norms outlined in the European Prison Rules.
  2. The Belarus prison service is part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This is dangerous for prisoners’ rights because it means that the agency responsible for investigating alleged criminal offences is the same as the agency in charge of guarding prisoners. This is like foxes being trusted to stand guard over hen houses. All prisoners are vulnerable to their treatment in custody being manipulated at the behest of investigators to exact confessions and witness statements from them.
  3. The lack of transparency of the Belarus prison service is almost absolute. A combination of lack of access by independent human rights monitors and fear of reprisal helps to maintain the invisibility of human rights violations and poor conditions of detention in Belarus prisons.
  4. In Belarus, channels for making complaints against violations of prisoners’ rights are strictly limited, and prosecutors and domestic courts are firmly under political control. And, of course, there is no recourse to the European Court of Human Rights.

To finish Ivan’s story. During his last prison term in the strict regime colony, Ivan took the decision to behave differently. He began taking classes to obtain the qualifications he had missed out on at school and studied well. He also started attending services at the colony chapel and slowly, as he put it, “like a plant growing”, he found religion offered him a different life-path.

When I interviewed him, he was living as a volunteer at a religious sanctuary in his adopted country. Looking back, he sees his imprisonment as lost years from which his conversion delivered him. He resisted my suggestion that, maybe, he wouldn’t have found a path away from his offending behaviours without his prison experiences.

“No, the opposite. Without God I wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “I don’t know what it is like in other countries, but in Belarus it is simply that you are deprived of freedom… prison doesn’t do anything for you.”

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