Katya (Ekaterina) Novikova several hours after her release from detention. Minsk, August 12, 2020. © Human Rights Watch

“It’s change you wanted? Here is some change for you! Want some more? Next time you’ll know when to stay home!” This is what police shouted at the men at one of Minsk’s main detention centres, as they beat them mercilessly. Witnessing this was only part of the ordeal that Katya Novikova, 34, endured last week. She was one of the nearly 7,000 people police in Belarus detained in just four days. I managed to speak with her just after she was released.

Protests have spread throughout Belarus after authorities tried to claim that the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, already in power for 26 years, had supposedly won flawed 9 August presidential elections by a landslide. Several of the protests involved clashes with police, but the vast majority were peaceful. Yet the round-ups by police were systematically brutal. Police officers mistreated and humiliated female detainees and viciously beat the men, cramming inmates into small cells that often had no place to sit, not to mention lie down, while depriving them of food, drinking water, and medical aid.

When the first detainees were released and told their stories, the level of public outrage was so staggering that people from all strata of Belarus society poured out to the street. Workers at several major state-owned enterprises went on strike demanding accountability for police violence and a free and fair repeat election.

Novikova spent two nights and a day in custody. Police rounded her up in the city centre at around 7 p.m. on 10 August as she attempted to cross the street in central Minsk.

Officers clad in black were blocking the road and wouldn’t let her through. Exasperated, she made the fatal mistake of asking to speak to their superior.

“So, he came, this ‘Rambo’ guy – that’s what they called him, Rambo – grabbed me by the neck and dragged me into this regular looking yellow bus parked nearby.” On the bus, ‘Rambo’ hit Katya on the head and painfully pulled her hair, shouting abuse. He pushed her to the floor.

Soon, police dragged in three more women. “What are you doing out in the street?” Rambo yelled. “Are you with the opposition? So, you’ll go to jail, all of you!” One of the women, I’ll call her Maria, about 20, started crying uncontrollably and he drenched her head with water. Then, the police pushed in a man, stretched him out on the floor and hand-cuffed him. Rambo demanded the password for his cell phone, and when the man refused he kicked him in the back threatening to “beat [his] kidneys.”

Around midnight, a police van picked up Katya and Maria and took them to the detention centre on Okrestina Street, in central Minsk. “They pushed us into the courtyard,” Katya said, “and I saw all these men flat on the ground, face down, and the riot police were hitting them with batons and kicking them at random. They were crying out from pain and there were so many of them, it’s like their bodies covered the whole space like a carpet. More guys were lined up by the gate, some of them bruised and dripping blood, and the riot police officers in black uniforms were making them do squats, jeering at them, and hitting those who didn’t keep up the pace. Then, [a guard] pushed me into the building and in the hall, there were more men, stripped naked, crouched on knees and elbows and the riot police were beating them to pulp.”

The floor in the hall was slippery with blood. The guards pushed Katya and Maria into a room adjacent to the hall, where an officer hit them with a baton on the back and forced them to kneel for a long time listening to the men scream and groan from pain.

The guards finally led Katya and Maria to a cell already crowded with another 19 women, most of them young. Some had participated in the protests; others merely happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time – one stepped out for groceries; another one brought out some scraps for stray cats.

The cell, apparently meant to accommodate four inmates, had four beds, a table, a clogged toilet, and a water tap. “It was not drinking water – it had this unpleasant smell. Some of the women still drank it because there was nothing else to drink. I was afraid of getting poisoned, so I wouldn’t touch it and basically went without water for two nights and a day. While there were 21 of us, you could still sit on one of the beds or on the table or even lie on the floor for a while. But the next day, they squeezed in thirty more women – those women had been in a neighbouring cell but apparently, they [police] needed that cell because more detainees were being brought in, and from then on, all we could do was stand like poles, one next to the other. There was no ventilation, and although the window was open by a crack, you could barely breathe.”

Katya’s head hurt and after several hours in the overcrowded, stifling cell she felt dizzy and couldn’t think straight. She was afraid she actually had a concussion and started asking for a doctor. The guards ignored her but she persisted and eventually, a guard opened the peephole in the door from outside and told her to look through the slit. When she did, she saw a black rubber baton. “If you continue with the yelling, you’ll have this up your ass,” the guard threatened.

One of the many women in the cell was diabetic. It took her and her cell mates an hour to convince the guards to bring her the insulin in the purse they had confiscated. By the time they brought it, the woman was barely conscious, Katya said.

At around 6 p.m. on 11 August, the guards started calling the women, one by one, to sign charge sheets. “They first said, we’ll go before a judge, but there was no judge there – just a police officer and a stack of rubber-stamped citations saying ‘I participated in an unsanctioned rally and shouted anti-government slogans…’ I wrote [at the bottom of mine] that I disagreed and that I was injured and received no medical assistance – and the police officer said that this wouldn’t help me any and if I had cooperated, they would have released me but now they’d only keep me longer,” Katya said.

At around 4 a.m. the guards called out Katya and one of her cell mates and took them out into the yard for what they called a session to “teach them a lesson,” which consisted of watching more men being kicked, punched, and beaten with batons. “What is it you don’t like about your life? What is it you want? Wanna be like them? Want to be beaten for good measure?” a police officer said to drive the point home.

Just after 5 a.m., the police led the women to the gate and literally pushed them out. Katya tried to get them to return her purse, emphasising that she couldn’t get home without keys, money or a phone. She also said she was afraid to walk the streets without a passport, especially given the heavy police presence in the city. But the officers said she should come back for her things in another five days and be grateful they’re letting her go. “We know your address and everything, so behave or else,” one of them threatened.

Katia went to a hospital straight away, where she had the medics examine her head and issue her a medical certificate, which I read, confirming soft tissue injury. Armed with the certificate, Katya attempted to file a complaint at the nearest police station. Their gates were shut. She kept knocking. Finally, a police officer showed up but said no one was available to speak to her because, “our people had to work until 3 a.m., so everyone is asleep now.” Katya insisted that she needed immediate assistance with retrieving her documents, keys and other belongings from the detention centre, but the officer refused to budge.

“So, here I am with no key, no phone, no passport, and no money,” Katya smiled ruefully. “I also have two cats at home and they must be going crazy from hunger. I’d better go to the office – it’s already open and there must be a spare set of key in my desk drawer.” She finished her coffee and went on her way.