Warning: The story contains graphic imagery.
The hideous purple and black bruises on Amir al Haidar’s lower back and buttocks were inflicted with such ferocity that he believed he might never recover from them.
“I was preparing myself to be executed,” al Haidar told CBC News. “I was beaten nearly 10 times, maybe more.”
Al Haidar, 34, and his wife, Anastasia Sheibak, 33, are among the many thousands in Belarus who have endured what Human Rights Watch characterizes as torture at the hands of government security forces loyal to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 26 years.
The couple fled their home in the capital, Minsk, for another country in Europe (which CBC is not identifying), fearful of being re-arrested, as well as to give their bodies an opportunity to recover.
Each weekend since the disputed Aug. 9 election, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets of the capital and other major cities to try to push Lukashenko out of office and force a new vote free of political interference.
Most western governments insist the 80 per cent margin of victory attributed to Lukashenko was a farce, and that the rightful victor was opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has now also fled Belarus.
‘They tortured all of us’
In trying to quell the protests, Lukashenko’s security forces have deployed water cannons, riot police and thousands of special forces dressed in military fatigues and body armour, all part of a campaign of intimidation meant to scare protesters off the streets.
Thousands of people have been arrested arbitrarily, with police using excessive or extreme violence as part of their tactics.
Al Haidar and Sheibak, who agreed to speak to the CBC remotely, said it is important for the world to understand the risks those who join the protest movement are taking.
“The special forces … they tortured all of us,” said Sheibak. She recounted waiting at a bus stop with her husband on the night of Aug. 11, after one of the first mass street protests.
Some medics who’d been tending to people in the crowd offered them a ride home, which they graciously accepted. A few moments later, however, they stopped the car after seeing people on the ground and police standing over them.
That’s all it took.
“The police officer said something [and then] they threw a live grenade underneath our car,” said al Haidar. Next, he said an officer put what appeared to be a shotgun to al Haidar’s head and told the couple to lie down on the ground.
Al Haidar said that what followed over the next 72 hours or so can only be described as “pure hell.”
He was taken to a police station and beaten by policemen with truncheons, he said. Other policemen punched him with their fists. On another occasion, he said a police officer stood on his head and pressed it so hard into the ground that he thought his skull was going to crack.
Al Haidar said that in spite of the severity of his pain and suffering, others had it worse. He said prisoners appeared to be assigned different colours, which were then spray-painted on their faces or hair, depending on whether they were found to be carrying or wearing any symbols of the opposition.
Those include white bracelets, which Tikhanovskaya has urged people to wear to show opposition to the government, as well as Belarus’s old red and white flag, which has emerged as another symbol of resistance.
The more political the symbol, the worse the punishment.
“I heard so many punches and blows, and people were screaming,” al Haidar said when he was in his jail cell. “They were begging the police officer not to beat any more, not to continue. [Such] noises and screams I have never heard before in my life.”
The abuse appeared to be for the sole purpose of intimidation — to set an example for others to stay at home.
Women weren’t spared. Sexual humiliation was one of the tactics. Sheibak said she was stripped naked and subjected to a humiliating cavity search.
“I was really frightened for the first 15 hours. It was total lawlessness. It’s like we were kidnapped bandits, and I thought they’d just take us into the forest and bury us,” she said.
Both were released after 72 hours, but not before being warned that if they were seen again near large crowds, their punishment would be even worse.
Belarusian authorities claim such stories are lies, that there is no truth that police and security forces are torturing people.
Earlier this week, a state TV channel aired a report on the Okrestina jail, the same prison where al Haidar had been beaten. The reporter was taken on a tour of the facility, where he was shown clean cells and an orderly interrogation room.
WATCH | Demonstrators describe torture at hands of Belarus police:
“Was someone beaten here?” the journalist asked.
“No — no one was beaten,” replied the policeman. “They brought people in, put them in a cell and that’s it.”
The segment then went on to show the kitchen that reportedly serves nutritious food to prisoners. There was also a video of the sleeping area, the conditions of which police characterized as “excellent.”
“There was no bullying or torture here,” insisted the deputy chief.
But the denials don’t appear to be fooling many outside Belarus. Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental agency that investigates political oppression, published a report this week highlighting widespread abuses by Lukashenko’s forces.
“Victims described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks and, in at least one case, rape,” said the report. It suggested the brutality demonstrates the “lengths Belarusian authorities will go to silence people.”
Sheibak said the events of that night in August continue to haunt her.
“I see people with white flowers and white clothing and I can’t even look at them — I [have] tears and [get] choked up,” Sheibak said. “Also, when I hear loud noises like fireworks, it just really scares me — or people start to run and you tense up.”
She said in the days after their release, they attempted to report the conduct of the police to the local investigation committee. They were rebuffed, which is when the pair decided they had no choice but to leave Belarus.
The life they had started to build for themselves, which included setting up a new high-tech company, is now on hold, said Sheibak.
“We had such bright dreams about building something in Belarus. We had ideas for social projects and for IT, which is really taking off.”
Earlier this week, Lukashenko travelled to Sochi, Russia, to seek help from Russian President Vladimir Putin to weather the crisis and to shore up Belarus’s crippled economy.
Putin extended Lukashenko a $1.5 billion US loan and has sent a number of high-level Russian delegations to Minsk to emphasize the close ties between the two nations.
Amir al Haidar said he believes the resilience of the protest movement has surprised even Russia, and that the ground under Lukashenko is starting to shift.
“We are not the opposition, we are the majority now,” he said. “Lukashenko and his team, they are in opposition, and the only thing that’s helping them survive is weapons and violence … and the loyalty of the policemen.”
Said al Haidar, “The protests will continue and they will not calm down.”