No water, no sleep, no air. What is it like to be a political prisoner in Belarus?

The number of political prisoners in Belarus in June exceeded twenty. Potential candidates for the presidency, bloggers, political activists are being detained, some of them are released after a few hours, others remain in prison for more than a month. Some risk to be sentenced to several years in jail. The political imprisonment is often made worse by harsh living conditions in jail.

Everything was taken away from me, even the Bible”

Human rights defenders have been trying to advocate for better conditions in Belarusian prisons. When it comes to political detainees the conditions are very likely to worsen. The report by Amnesty International mentions a lot of forms of ill-treatment of political detainees. Among them are the absence of hot tap water, confiscation of all the personal belongings, bad sleeping conditions (no mattresses on the metal bunk-beds).

A film director and activist Volha Mikalaichyk was recently released from jail. She has shared her experience of spending 22 days in a disciplinary cell. Mikalaichyk was charged with participating in election pickets. The activist was placed in a 2×2 meter cell alone and had only one walk in fresh air for 30 days. Mikalai Maslouski, who spent 15 days in a detention facilities, says the number of inmates in a cell for four people was never lower than five.

Photo: Volha Mikalaichyk

Personal hygiene is one of the biggest problems faced by political prisoners in Belarus. Equipped with the videocamera, the cell of Mikalaichyk had a toilet without walls, one liter of water per day was allocated to flush. Political detainees often have no access to shower for many days. Makalaichyk spent all the 30 days without a shower. Paval Sevyarynets who still remains imprisoned has so far had no access to a shower for 31 days.

Everything was taken away from me, even the Bible. Why? Even murderers are allowed to have the Bible while serving their terms. I have spent 31 days here without a shower, they provide me with only one liter of cold water [per day]. And some other prisoners, including women, have the same confinement conditions. What is going on at the very heart of Europe? Let’s be human!” said Sevyarynets during the court session on July 8th.

Several political activists who had spent time in prison said there were lice in mattresses or uniforms. This is another excuse not to provide mattresses referring to disinfection. Sometimes, as Mikalaichyk reports, other inmates don’t get mattresses just because one of them is a political detainee. Thus, the conditions are worsened by unfriendly relations between inmates facilitated by prison guards.

On the background of there being no bed and no air, absence of decent food is a smaller problem, as described by many political prisoners. Nevertheless, the quality of the meals is very poor, no diet options are provided and vegetarians are forced to select between eating meat-based food or simply refusing to eat.

These and other conditions were highlighted by political prisoners detained 2010 and 2006. However, both national and international human rights watchdogs say that 2020 is special because of the harsher environment for political inmates in detention centers.

Mental pressure on political detainees

Despite unfair court decisions (for example based on fake evidence), political prisoners face additional pressure inside detention facilities. Dzyanis Urbanovich described how his cell was filled with chlorine water reaching to ankles and his request to clean up was met with “take your pants off and wipe”. The same method was used in a cell of Maksim Urbanovich — a bucket of chlorine per day as a disciplinary measure.

Since recently, authorities also practice public shaming of the detainees. On July 7th, the Ministry for Internal Affairs published an article with a headline “No one needs such a hype”. In the text, the MIA warned on distribution and production of anti-governmental graffiti, stickers, banners. The article caused public discontent as it also included two videos of detainees who admit to and apologize for drawing a graffiti and making a picture of a prison truck. The person in the second video later commented that he had never agreed to a publication of the video and believed it had been recorded for internal use only.

Photo: Graffiti “Sanya 3%”. Source:

The presidential election in Belarus will take place in less than a month. The wave of political repressions usually unfolds after peaceful protests against voting results and election fraud. At least this was a case in 2006 and 2010 when former candidates to the presidency and almost hundreds of protesters were detained during post-electoral protests.

However, this time many people have already been arrested or sentenced for organizing or urging others to participate in unsanctioned rallies. Sometimes the accused individuals were actually located in other towns that the demonstrations. Among the peculiarities of this election campaign are mass detentions of bloggers and an increased number of arrested women. Despite their occupation, gender or age all these people have one thing in common: their unfair detention was followed by ill-treatment and tortures in Belarusian prisons. All this happened because they openly expressed their political opinion.

Alesia Rudnik for