Mikhail Chuprynski on his experience in Akrescina and Zhodzina prisons, Belarus
17 August 2020, 15:32 | Dev By Media
The CEO of Rozum Robotics Viktar Khamianok posted a video on his Facebook in which Mikhail Chuprynski, a co-owner of the company, speaks about his arrest and detention in Akrescina and Zhodzina pre-trial detention centres.
Chuprynski was detained on the night of 9 to 10 August in the hallway of his home.
How it all happened
On the 9th of August, I took a short walk in the city. Several times I was able to leave the places I wanted to get away from. I was almost home, I stood in front of the entrance. There was not a hint of anything about to happen. Then, all of a sudden, they jumped out from around the corner. Maybe they crept along the wall or something. I could only make a few steps into the hallway when they captured and took me away.
Two days later, they detained my brother elsewhere nearby. In my case, they acted quite professionally. They beat me only during the capture. They twisted me by my arms, shoved me into the van, and sat on my head.
Were they wearing any uniforms? (A question from the colleagues in the background.)
Yes, they were. Most likely, that was SOBR [special emergency response police unit], not OMON [riot police]. I’m not very good at differentiating the sorts… I was lucky. I was not put into the kind of police van where they could have some fun. Mine was of the sort that contained narrow metal cells, about 1×1 metres each, for 2 to 3 people to be squeezed in.
Is it the one with a green cabin? (A question from the colleagues in the background.)
I couldn’t see it. I could only see my own shoelaces.
Later, they took me directly to Akrescina [a pre-trial detention centre named after the alleyway in Minsk where it is located], without stopping at a police office or anywhere. There was a man in the same mobile jail, with a bone sticking out of his arm; he was groaning — the suspension in the car obviously had some serious problems. But the worst was a little later. At some point, people in the cell next to mine started shouting: “He’s not breathing! He’s not breathing!”
At first, the response was: “Who cares?”, but later they stopped to check. They asked: “We’ve got a stiff, what do we do?” The others replied: “You’ll get bored by the paperwork, just dump him.” So they did, and we carried on without him. I didn’t see that, but I heard it.
If people had white wristbands [symbols of the people voting for the opposition candidate], those got shaved off together with the skin; some of those people were beaten if the SOBR deemed it necessary. They beat the living daylights out of those who stood out. There was a guy in our cell whose broken rib was sticking out, he was all covered in blood. Then a doctor came — she turned out to be a real sadist. Said this probably was traumatic craniotomy, and didn’t allow them to take him to the hospital. The doctors tried to take my brother out, tried to take anybody else away. But they were stopped, double-checked, and everyone who was still moving was taken back.
The guy with a craniotomy got 12 days of detention instead of 15, unlike everybody else. Perhaps as a “discount” for the head trauma.
There were 47 of us in a cell for 5 people. We were constantly mixed, gassed (as people began to complain about lack of fresh air, they were sprayed from a gas canister in response). They did that several times.
It’s still difficult for me to breathe, I cough all the time, but the other option was worse. When people in other cells complained that they hadn’t eaten for three days (which was true), that there were no court proceedings filed, no trials, and started going on about that, we kept silent, having grown wise to what can happen to those speaking up. And those people were taken out, got brutally beaten up and thrown back to their cells.
I was detained on the night of 9 to 10 August. They punched us hard, but in fact they did spare us, as we learnt later. The next night, we heard grenades exploding, so we knew there was an actual war going on outside, and they kept beating the newly detained people all night. I stood on the window sill — there was a little fresh air there — and I could see the corner of the prison yard.
They pulled out those who couldn’t move. And then they covered two bodies and took them away.
I don’t know what pills they took, but it’s impossible to batter people the whole night without some kind of doping. I saw guys whose knees were just mashed chunks of swollen flesh. Those moved at all got beaten, those who were freezing got drenched in cold water. In other words, they tortured and killed people there.
On the third day, we were transported to Zhodzina. We were driven in zip tie handcuffs; 4 OMON members were jumping on people’s heads and beating them. After the Internet connectivity was restored, they stared at their phones and read NEXTA [news blog] together. They said things like: “How much do they pay you, c*nt? How much do you make? What are you unhappy with?” In the end they asked: “Why do you think we’re fascists, aren’t we the same as you?” In their heads, they somehow consider this normal.
In Zhodzina, we spent the first night outside. Not because it was so bad there or the people were bad; there was just nowhere to put us. We were in an exercise yard, pretending we were penguins in Antarctica to somehow warm ourselves up.
In the morning, they unloaded the cells. There was a prisoner with us, Sergey, and while they were leading us, he kept growing sadder and sadder. Then it turned out that we were brought to the wing for people with life sentences. There are photographs on each door describing who did what. Even they were compacted in order to cram us in there.
We could sit comfortably there: 22 people in an 8-bed cell. At least there was a place for everyone to sit down. And there, the attitude was normal. Despite all the bad things I had heard about Zhodzina, compared to what had happened [in Akrescina], Zhodzina was a resort. We had a reflex: hands behind our backs, face on the floor, only moving by running. And at some point, the guard said: “Guys, stop, stop, calmly, just follow me, no need for all this.”
They did not have enough guards – they took on young district police officers who watched us in our cells. Those guys are clueless from the point of view of guard work: they opened the doors, turned away, chatted with someone – they did not know how to observe the instructions, but they treated us ok. And somehow they began to feed us. Yes, there were not enough plates, spoons and so on, we ate in turns, but compared to what was happening in Akrescina, this is nothing.
At some point, we had to open the window. I have done many engineering projects in my life, but what I managed to do there with the help of shoe soles, contraband shoelaces, bread crumbs and a burnt match, I will definitely repeat and photograph. Because I am most proud of that project. We had to open the window in order to breathe somehow, and we succeeded with the help of simple devices that could be found in the cell.
People whose clothes were torn off [in Akrescina] were dressed in Zhodzina; they were given at least some shoes. Basically, it was possible to sit in Zhodzina.
The trial took place on the third day. There was no judge to give a verdict. The cops gave me the whole set of documents, including the verdict. When they took us out of the cells, they called our last names. “These are sentenced to 15 days, take them aside. These are sentenced to this many…” — they were escorted in another direction. And I went to the judge with a ready-made arrest warrant.
I don’t know about the rest, but I was lucky to have at least a sane judge. She asked some questions, allowed me to read the protocol and add anything that I thought was needed. I wrote that I would like to notify my wife by phone. I tried to send at least a dozen notes: we wrote on toilet paper with blood (from cutting our hands), made holes to look through them in the light, while in Zhodzina, we wrote with borscht on toilet paper. Out of ten, two reached their addressees. Because of one [the request in the protocol], they called [my wife] from the court; the other call was made when I had already been released (a man had left earlier and did not know that I had already been released).
The trial was still a circus. The judge asked questions and read out the verdict to me, which I had already seen: 15 days of detention, with the head of such and such department assigned to carrying out the sentence.
Others were judged differently, without any human decency. The guys being tried were ordinary labourers and they said: “This is some sh*t, you write that you detained me at Asanalieva, I don’t even know where that is, they detained me at the train station. And not at the specified time but four hours earlier.” They received one and the same reply: “Do you want to say that the police are lying?” That’s how it went.
If they attempted to call a lawyer, they were taken out and told that this should not be done. The people quickly agreed.
There was a noteworthy event in Zhodzina. They came and asked whether anyone needed a doctor. Those who had been in Akrescina said at once: “Thanks, we’re good.” Because there, anyone who asked for a doctor was taken out, beaten, and asked whether it hurt yet. There were also people in Zhodzina who were tried there as well. They were sentenced to 4 to 6 days of prison, and they were not beaten that hard either. And for them, “a doctor” really meant a doctor. Seryoga [a nickname for Sergey], a former prisoner who was there with us, figured it out and said he had a stomachache. That’s because he had seen through the “feeder” [a slot for passing food to the prisoners] that an ambulance had come, not just a prison doctor. They actually gave him a shot of something, and even tried to get some people out. I’m not sure if they succeeded. But in any case, there were normal people there already.
I went to Akrescina to get my things. That’s why I know that the local staff are now painting themselves as all rainbows and unicorns, implying that it was not them who were beating up people, but OMON [riot police]. This is partially true, but only partially. The wardens, who gassed people and beat people so that they didn’t make a fuss, were not from OMON. Those were the staff of offender detention centres and the likes.
Despite your warm welcome here, I feel rather awkward, because I blew it by getting caught and having not done anything heroic. I didn’t get involved in a righteous fight with OMON. Those who did have not yet been released. Criminal cases are being filed against them.
What I saw was not the same crowd I was in jail with in 2006. At that time, those were specific guys: opposition students, blokes, but these were the ones who are usually called “sviadomyia” [“conscious ones” in Belarusian]. There were no random people there. This time, as far as I saw, at least 70% of the confined there were labourers: drivers, builders, cooks and welders. A lot of them were simply not involved: a homeless man was kicked out of the train station, he didn’t manage to get to the bench he used to sleep on — he was beaten severely and charged on political grounds. A former convict went out on a Sunday summer evening with his friends to get some booze and was also captured. There are many labourers there, good men, but all of a sudden they are all against Lukashenka. We only had one character out of the “OMON, don’t beat me, I voted for Lukashenka!” joke here. And there was one plainclothes agent taken without any ID, trying to explain himself, but he was beaten even more severely.
Their main mistake was that although they gave the OMON a carte blanche to brutally batter anyone, this time they arrested not the vanilla opposition but a lot of common people. And that was not forgiven. This time, it is not about politics or economics. It is about human dignity and the sense of justice. These are the much higher matters that have touched a nerve.
In case anybody is not aware yet, when I arrived at the detention centre to look for my belongings, I saw Victoria, who had been sorting things all those days. (Victoria is the name of a volunteer who was sorting piles of things and documents to return them to those released. That’s because after arrest, all the things were just thrown into a corner, without making any inventory: thousands of backpacks, sports bags, purses, plastic bags, all jumbled together. There were two crates of iPhones with dead batteries alone. — Reporter’s note.) I would not dare go inside after hearing all the voices of people who are assaulted and killed there. Victoria and many other women weren’t afraid.
And I sincerely believe that this whole story would never work if the presidential candidate had been a man, if women hadn’t joined in at the level of volunteers, lawyers, and so on. And I know how thoroughgoing the current volunteer activity is. There are drivers, there are people delivering food and water, people cleaning up trash, people providing legal assistance, psychologists, all coordinating and trying to do something and to help. And I feel like an impostor, because the real work is being done by these people while I just spent my time in a prison cell serving my sentence instead of doing anything useful. And I urge you to please direct your warm feelings towards the people who are actually working. Not the people who are waving their hands, like I’m doing right now, and look like heroes but actually are not.
What about the 15-day sentence? (Mikhail Chuprynski was sentenced to 15 days of detention, but then it seemed to have been “cut down” and he was released. — Editor’s note.)
The lawyers explained that there is no such procedure [to cut down 12 days]. The president can personally pardon you, but this is not my case. They packaged it as a meeting of a certain commission from the District Office of Internal Affairs, which carefully considered my case and, in fact, released me on parole. That does not apply to administrative offences, only to criminal ones. Again, only after you have completed at least two-thirds of the sentence.
They gave me a paper to sign, and even let me read it. It said that if I commit an administrative offense punishable by arrest within a year, I will be jailed for the rest of the time under this case plus the time for the new arrest. Moreover, if the charge is the same (political meetings and the like), my case will be classified as a criminal one. I don’t know whether it’s legal but in this country, the legal field is variable, that’s why it can be interpreted both ways.
In Zhodzina, the situation was totally different. Zhodzina is a small city, and it consists of BelAZ dump truck factory, one more factory and a prison. The guards there face a very different environment. In Minsk, you blend in with all the rest and that’s it. Meanwhile, there [in Zhodzina] everybody knows each other, including where you work. BelAZ is already on strike. It was clear that Zhodzina guards were a bit unsettled because of that. This did not change their attitude much, because they treated you quite well. I have nothing specifically against the Zhodzina guys.
Of course, I have no regrets about what happened at all. I regret that I got caught foolishly, you shouldn’t do what I did. However, dignity and a sense of justice make an integral part of any character and especially mine as well. So, it was worth it.
Were there women? (A question from behind the scenes.)
This all happened under our windows. And they were maltreated. During the initial inspection, the wardens asked the women to undress and committed obscenities, mostly of a humiliating nature. Later, when they moved them to the prison cells… well, the girls were feisty. The police took mostly those who were clinging onto their men and detained those whom they weren’t able to drag away. Or specifically activists. So they started making an uproar when they came to their senses. They were poisoned in response: chlorine was thrown into their cells. Then the warden shouted: “Now I’ll douse you in sh*t!”, opened the cells and poured something there, not sure what. I haven’t seen any of the girls yet, but I hope they all have been released and will be able to get good psychological help. Because it was horrible.
One more thing about women. A significant portion of men detained in Akrescina said, to put it briefly: “Well, so Tsikhanouskaya’s husband had been arrested, they threatened to take away her children, she was scared to death, but she came out and did it anyway. So why would I sit at home?” And this is another important story about the role of women in what’s happening. Were it [the presidential candidate] a man… Well, imagine that Babaryka hadn’t been detained. (Viktar Babaryka was not registered as a presidential candidate after his arrest. — Translator’s note.) Babaryka and Tsapkala would start playing back-stage games against each other, talking about who’s got the best junk in the trunk, all these manly things. Would a laborer from a plant risk himself in the line of fire of OMON for Babaryka? Never in his life. We need to look up to our women and to what they do.
What are the correct tactics when they detain you, when they escort you? What should one do and not do if one goes out in the evening to grab some beer? (A question from the colleagues in the background.)
If they are already detaining you — don’t show off. Shove your whatever you-know-where and do what you are told. If you have any identification marks on you that give away your political affiliation, take them off and throw them away while you are still in a police van. Turn your T-shirts inside out if there are any symbols on them. They won’t be of any use in prison. There was a guy with “MMA” [mixed martial arts] on his shirt. He was told: “You, fighter, come up, here you go!” and the beatings started. The paratroopers in striped vests with visible tattoos were beaten mercilessly. Not standing out is the only tactic that can help there.
You remembered some names, maybe? (A question from the colleagues in the background.)
Mostly, I saw my legs. But I know those who drove us to Zhodzina, because I know their number plates and we will find them.
Did you meet any new investors in the cell? (A question from the colleagues in the background.)
I met many worthy people. I would never have crossed paths with them otherwise, as we all live in our own bubble. People’s motives differ a lot too. People who are ready to go on strike with a salary of just 400 rubles [163 USD], it costs them a lot.
And despite the euphoria of the recent days, I am very pessimistic. I understand what may happen if they shout: “Sic ‘em!” I still think nothing is going to change. This is doubtlessly an agony, but it can last for years. Be careful with euphoria. What the Minister of Internal Affairs said, that he’s holding back his police personnel, is true. And they are itching to jump into action.
So guys, stay safe. Look at me and don’t do what I did. Run faster, watch your surroundings more closely, don’t let them approach you from the back, stay away from police trucks and vans, lone alleyways, and so on. And don’t do foolish things. Thanks to all.
Mikhail Chuprynski is a co-owner of Rozum Robotics. He is also one of the leaders of the Minsk Hackerspace community. This team launched the production of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Minsk Hackerspace produced and distributed 40,000 protective shields, 1,200 masks for contaminated areas (“snorkels”), and more than 6,500 protective overalls to hospitals. 456 hospitals in 142 localities received help.
We publish the stories in full, uncut, following the words of the witnesses of the events.