'Take her!': Detained in Minsk


MINSK, Belarus - 'Take her!" said a man in civilian clothing to several police in riot gear. Seconds later, I was kneeling with my hands on my head in a police van crowded with arrested Belarussian protestors.

I had been heading to my hotel, trying to make my way through scores of riot police after covering the demonstrations that saw tens of thousands flood the streets of Minsk to protest against President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election.

Just before I had seen riot policemen sweep a young couple off their feet, swinging batons over the boy with all their might to the sound of his girlfriend screaming before both were dragged by hands and feet to the van.

After I was intercepted, flapping around my still unlaminated press card from the Belarussian foreign ministry did not help much.

"You are France Presse, so what are you doing here, go to France!," one cheeky officer said after I was taken to the MAZ van, used by riot police and equipped with convenient slots for their shields and shelves for helmets.

Unfortunately for the 10 detainees, myself included, our place was on the metal floor, kneeling in a 'duck-and-cover' position with our hands over our heads.

A careless movement to stretch out a limb, and one of the officers, sitting on the perimeter benches, would hit you over the head.

Most people, including an asthmatic young man who wheezed helplessly without his inhaler - he was just on his way to get it from his car when he crossed the path of OMON riot police - had to keep this position for the next two hours.

"We'll toss your inhaler into the grave with you," one officer told the young man helpfully.

It was clear that our van was one of dozens bringing people to a detention centre somewhere on the outskirts of Minsk.

Many were unloading and heading back to the city to pick up more people, though it was already 1:00 am, long after the rally on Independence Square had been broken up.

The OMON eventually brought me along with about 90 people back to a police station in central Minsk. Asking questions or that officers identify themselves, let alone read us our rights, was met with silence.

It soon became clear that at least a third of the group had absolutely nothing to do with the opposition rally.

Many were cursing at it for having disrupted their night. A man who stopped to ask a traffic police for directions to a nearest store. A woman who was closing down her hair salon for the day.

There we sat for the next 10 hours, in a basement with rows of chairs, a flat-screen TV, and a bulletin board with, quite randomly, various types of juice cartons tacked on for display.

Bathroom breaks were allowed after two hours in detention when a woman asked why she was being tortured.

Blood dribbled endlessly from a wounded man's hand until detainees rummaged in their bags to amass enough fabric for dressing.

Instead of letting us go after three hours as the law requires, police had everyone fingerprinted and photographed, while OMON gave testimonies for our protocols.

"Yes, it was her in a white coat, and those shoes.. girl, what do you call your shoes?" one smirked at me while giving his story to the policeman.

I had been detained by a different group of men and had not seen this one. His colleagues surrounded me, pushing me and shouting verbal abuse. I declined to sign the protocol, which alleged that I participated in an unsanctioned protest, and gave an incorrect time of detention.

"They hate it when you ignore them, but as soon as you break down they get bored," one woman said, clearly from experience, when 11 of us women were riding in a metal cage in the back of a van to yet another location.

Two younger girls, students who were headed home from some cafe when they were rounded up, sobbed, fearing that they would be sexually harassed in prison.

It had been daylight for a long while, but we had lost all sense of time after spending so much of it in closed vans and basements.

Thirteen hours after being arrested they took us to yet another location with jail cells of three square meters each.

"Fifteen days would mean spending New Year's here," one girl said.

"Well, it's not like I had anything planned." Prison tales followed.

Belarussians apparently have fun demanding a Belarussian to Russian translator for their trials. Everyone speaks Russian in Belarus, but police have a hard time with Belarussian.

My four cellmates were summoned long before me, and I unsuccessfully attempted to pace a room sized one by two metres to keep warm, then dozed off on the concrete bench, listening to sounds of someone's wails creeping through the ventilation shaft.

There were hundreds detained that night in Minsk.

Seventeen hours after my arrest, police grabbed me and my belongings in a sudden rush of activity, eager to get me out where they finally figured out I did not belong.

"I hope we can stay friends," said the officer giving me a ride to my hotel.


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