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A Crackdown on Belarus Protests Backfires. Here’s What Videos Show.

2020-08-17 09:00:31

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Belarus staged their biggest protest in the country’s history on Sunday, one week after a disputed presidential election extended the 26-year rule of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. The uprising took a decisive turn last week as a slew of videos and photos circulated showing security officers brutally repressing demonstrators.

The Belarusian authorities detained thousands of protesters, and human rights groups say that hundreds were beaten or injured.

Evidence of the crackdown provoked a widespread backlash inside the country, posing an unprecedented threat to Mr. Lukashenko’s rule. Strikes have been held at state-owned enterprises where thousands of workers refused to return to their jobs. Police officers and state news media officials have resigned. And in one of the most dramatic displays of resistance, former paramilitary officers with the Interior Ministry have posted videos on social media showing them defiantly throwing away their uniforms.

The Times reviewed hundreds of the videos and spoke to several protesters who were beaten, arrested or detained. Here’s what they revealed.

The demonstrations that followed the disputed presidential election began peacefully but turned violent when the police and other security forces attacked. Dozens of videos show officers kicking, dragging and beating protesters who do not appear to pose a threat. The video below shows three instances in which multiple officers surround and pummel protesters on the ground with their boots and rubber batons.

Though the majority of protesters were peaceful, some were seen on video throwing paving stones, spraying a substance that looked like mace and driving cars into riot police. On several occasions, crowds turned violent while fighting to defend and free protesters from police officers who were detaining them on the street.

The Ministry of Interior, an arm of the Lukashenko government, said that one protester was killed on Aug. 10 by an “unidentified explosive device” that blew up in his hands. But a video analysis of the incident by Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian investigative bloggers, and an independent analysis by The Times raises serious questions about this claim and suggests that the protester was most likely shot by security forces.

Three simultaneous videos show an officer firing his weapon in the direction of the victim, Aleksandr Taraikovsky, who is standing approximately 45 feet away with his arms raised.

Medical experts say Mr. Taraikovsky’s injury, visible from one angle, appears to be consistent with a wound resulting from a projectile, not an explosive device.

In another incident, Yevgeny Ukraintsev, 33, and his brother Dmitri, 20, were driving through the streets in Minsk and waving an opposition flag when they were stopped by an armored van with no license plates. Within seconds, masked men shot through their window and dragged them into the street, beating them. A part of the encounter was filmed from a nearby residential building.

“They threw us like logs,” Yevgeny Ukraintsev told The Times. “I looked at my hands; they were covered with blood.” He lifted his brother Dmitry’s shirt and realized he had been injured by the shot. While Mr. Ukraintsev remained detained, Dmitry was taken to a hospital where doctors removed two projectiles from his left lung. According to surgeons, a rubber bullet missed his heart by millimeters.

“This is an example of a large-scale punitive operation,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, who traveled to Minsk from Moscow last Monday. She said officers used stun grenades on a massive scale, fired blanks from automatic weapons and fired tear gas at close range directly into groups of protesters. “Authorities were acting with the objective of frightening people into submission, and silencing and discouraging them from returning to the streets.”

At least 6,700 protesters were detained last week and hundreds were injured or beaten, according to Viasna, a human rights organization based in Minsk. Protesters released from detention appear to have been subjected to “widespread torture,” according to Amnesty International.

Several videos taken by viewers outside detention centers show prisoners being roughly handled within security walls. Audio said to be recorded outside a pretrial detention center in Minsk features chilling screams of people held inside.

But a clearer picture emerged this week as hundreds of protesters were released. Dozens of photos of their injuries were published, alongside accounts in local press and on social media of beatings, humiliation and torture. A Russian journalist recounted how officers made him lie face down alongside other prisoners on a “living carpet” of blood, with some detainees lying on top of each other. Some say they were denied food for three days.

Mr. Ukraintsev, the protester whose brother was shot in the lung, described his experience inside one of the detention facilities in Minsk.

“There were so many people I couldn’t squat to have a little rest — my legs were hurting,” Mr. Ukraintsev said in an interview with The Times. He recalled how he had been held in a cramped yard, with approximately 90 other people, without proper food, water or toilets. “Some people gave up and relieved themselves right there, right under their feet. It was horrible.”

Public outrage at the government’s brutality is appearing to draw in people whose loyalty had once been unquestioned.

Footage showing police cars blowing their horns in solidarity with protesters has coursed through social media. Across the country, protesters are calling on Mr. Lukashenko to quit.

At least a dozen Belarusian police officers — from different parts of the country — have published resignation letters on Instagram, along with their identification cards and badges. Such acts of defiance had been virtually unheard-of during Mr. Lukashenko’s presidency.

“17 years of service are over … my conscience is clear … police with the people,” Yeghor Yemelyanov, a police captain from the city of Novopolotsk, wrote on his Instagram account. His post has gained almost 400,000 likes.

Another police chief, Vitaly Belizhenko, 34, also announced his resignation on Instagram. “I couldn’t put up with disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters, arrests without good reason, illegal custody records,” he told The Times.

In a separate but equally dramatic display of opposition, several former paramilitary officers with the Interior Ministry published videos showing them throwing away and burning their uniforms.

“I swore an oath to my nation,” one former officer, Anatoli Novitsky, 27, said in a video he posted on social media. “But looking at what’s happening in Minsk right now, I can’t be proud of where I served.”

“I decided to publicly discard the uniform that I once valued and was proud of so that the active fighters think about who they are loyal to and whom they should protect,” Mr. Novitsky added when approached by The Times.

But perhaps the most apparent threat to Mr. Lukashenko’s political future has come in the form of demonstrations at large state-run enterprises across the country.

Videos circulating on social media show industrial workers, galvanized by the police crackdown, refusing to return to work.

On Friday, hundreds of workers gathered at the entrance to Minsk Tractor Works, a Soviet-era industrial giant whose farming machinery is one of Belarus’s best-known brands. Footage has also emerged of similar strikes among transit and autoworkers, as well as at an oil refinery and factories making fertilizer and trucks.

“There is an unprecedented level of solidarity and unification of people,” said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies. “Even the fear of torture cannot stop people from protesting anymore.”

Reporting was contributed by John Ismay, Dmitriy Khavin, Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko.


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