He was sentenced to ten days in jail for an interview the authorities claimed was a ‘picket’. Read the prison story of journalist Zmitser Lupach, a Belsat TV contributor and resident of the town of Hlybokaye.
The morning of May 8 was warm, so I cycled to work wearing just a T-shirt. It looked as if it would be a hot day. I’d received an assignment from my editors the evening before, to film some street interviews about Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s latest remarks on fighting the coronavirus. The head of state had advised men (or “blokes” as he called them) to endure it for a month and not to visit their lovers: “If you’ve already kissed someone, carry on. But if you’re a bloke, stay away from other women and all that. Go on, put up with it for a month! If you’re already on lockdown with your family, just stay with them!”
I was doing the street poll for Subjective, a satirical show that I work on. People were eager to answer, so my colleague and I polled quite a few in a short time, then went off to send the footage to the editors.
While we were polling, I noticed I had a missed call from Syarhei Tsyrban, the militia major who normally charges me for working without accreditation. In the last few years, I’ve been to court 21 times. 17 cases ended with fines totalling over 6,000 euros. In the four other instances, I wasn’t acquitted, but the cases were dismissed due to procedural errors on the part of the militia.
Out of all European countries, Belarus is the only one in the habit of fining journalists working for foreign media for not having ministry of foreign affairs accreditation. Meanwhile, the ministry refuses to issue such accreditation. Moreover, almost all the journalists fined by Belarusian courts were working for the independent channel Belsat TV. Belarusian law enforcers call it “Polish”, even though it’s the only channel broadcasting to Belarus in the Belarusian language.
“He’s going to charge me again”, I thought, when I saw another missed call. “So what, he can wait. He’ll call back”.
“Bring your coat. It’ll be cold in there”
I was just waiting a few minutes for the video footage to upload, and writing to my editors to say the job was done, when my colleague Leanid Yuryk said, “The militia’s here!”
And indeed, in walked three militiamen: Syarhei Tsyrban in uniform, with two younger ones in plain clothes. “Looks like they’re going to arrest me”, I thought, “but what for?!” The paragraph that covers working without accreditation stipulates only a fine, not administrative arrest.
“Dmitriy Antonovich, we need to go out for a chat”, said Syarhei Tsyrban. I asked him to hang on a moment. “Alright, we’ll wait”. Then thousands of thoughts flashed through my head as I tried to remember what I could’ve done wrong from the point of view of the Belarusian law enforcers, and where. I looked at the plainclothesmen: KGB? Didn’t look like it. KGB men wouldn’t have come so openly. They prefer to get others to do their dirty work; militiamen and judges, for instance.
I walked out. “Bring your coat. It’ll be cold in there”, said Tsyrban. I instantly understood what “there” meant, but I still didn’t know what for.
Outside the door, I was told that administrative charges were being brought against me for “illegal picketing” according to Article 23.34, part 1. That article does allow arrests, which is why I was detained. I asked if I could call my wife to say I’d been arrested and needed my coat. They let me.
I told my wife I’d been detained. “You?!”, she asked in surprise. “Thank God it wasn’t you!”, I answered. “Look at that”, said a plainclothesman. “Still got your sense of humour even in a situation like this”.
They put me in their car with militiamen on either side of me. We drove to a station about 300 metres away. En route, I was trying to joke with the militiamen but all the while wondering what I could’ve done wrong, and where. For now, the militiamen stayed silent. “You’ll soon find out”.
Admittedly, they were being reasonable, so I saw no sense in resisting. There were three of them, all about twenty years younger than me.
We went into the station. A masked militiaman immediately sprayed my hands with sanitiser. After all, there is coronavirus in the country, even though our leader called it a psychosis.
The interrogation room was busy, so we went up to a large room on the first floor. Since I’d already been through two or maybe three dozen administrative cases, I was used to all this – yes, I do realise how odd that sounds, but people get used to anything in time. Pulling some papers from a dossier, Major Tsyrban informed me that I faced administrative charges for participation in an illegal picket on March 31. “But that was just a normal live stream from a meeting of subscribers to Syarhei Tsikhanouski’s YouTube channel, A Land For Living”, I replied in surprise. But the Belarusian authorities felt differently: I’d spoken out without their permission, meaning I was guilty.
In the arrest report, I wrote as usual that, as per the Constitution, I refused to testify against myself and didn’t consider myself guilty. “I need to question you as a witness in the administrative case against Syarhei Tsikhanouski”, continued the militiaman. “You have no right to refuse”.
I explained that I’d said something into the microphone during that live stream, which was up on the Internet for all to see. I didn’t remember who else was there; it was over a month ago. But that wasn’t all – the major drew out another administrative charge from the dossier, this time under “good old” Article 22.9 (working without accreditation) for recording the street poll footage. Once again, I refused to testify against myself.
Finally, the militiaman said, “The court hearing will be held on Monday, May 11 at 10am. Until then, we’re detaining you here”.
“Can you inform my wife?”
“No!”, came his curt reply.
They took me to another room with a woman sitting in it. “Stay here and have a chat. Maybe you’ll find something in common”, Cyrban said with a hint of irony. When she took off her mask, I recalled that she was one of six alcoholics whose photos I’d noticed on a poster hanging in the station, oddly titled “Recognise Yourself”. The woman said it was the militiamen’s lunchtime. They were going to lock her up too, but now we’d be waiting there for about an hour.
“What did they get you for?”
“For journalism”, I said. “I film things they don’t want me to. And you?”
“I went on a bender”, she said. “No idea how it happened… Had a drink with my friend, then kept on drinking for another three weeks. I don’t have a clue where the money came from!” She said she worked as a cleaner in a slaughterhouse, and told me about the working conditions and wages. Then I heard my wife outside; she’d come to bring me my coat. I wanted to leave the room to tell her about the hearing, but a militiaman shut the door in my face. I was trembling with anger that my wife was out there, but I couldn’t even talk to her. Then out of the window I saw my colleague Leanid walking about by the building, waiting for my wife. I waved at him, but he didn’t see me.
My new friend suggested I open the window and shout to him. So, I moved a printer off the windowsill, pulled the window open slightly, and quickly told him I’d be in court on Monday. My colleague nodded that he’d understood.
After lunch, I was taken to a cell first, while the woman carried on waiting because she could only be searched by a militiawoman.
The chief of the detention centre, Major Adamovich, comes from the village next to mine. In the early 1990s, I worked as a foreman on a collective farm where he was a combine-harvester’s assistant. And so I ended up meeting my former subordinate again. He behaved as tactfully as he could, given his position. He asked me to empty my pockets and strip down to my underwear. Everything was scanned with a metal detector, then I was taken to a cell.
“You’ll be in here on your own till Monday”, said the chief. “They’ll probably let you go after the hearing”.
In the cell there were two bunk beds, a metal table, and four metal stools, all bolted to the cement floor. The window was sealed by two panels of double glazing with an iron grille between them. Light could get in, but you couldn’t see by it. In the door was the so-called “food hatch”, through which guards passed prisoners food or a broom to sweep their cell. Above the hatch was a spyhole that the guard slid open from time to time to check what was happening in the cell. Additionally, the cell had security cameras. Above the door was a light that was switched on night and day.
I paced around to measure the cell: three steps. Slightly more to the window, but you couldn’t reach it because of the stools bolted to the floor. I asked for something to read. I was given two books; one was Agatha Christie detective stories – apt reading for this place!
They didn’t give me anything to eat that day, but I wasn’t hungry. It must’ve been because of the stress.
So began my first hours as a prisoner. A few hours later, I asked to be taken to the toilet. “After 8pm”, the guard replied. “Bear with it or go in the bucket!”
In the corner stood a bucket with a lid. Such was the cell’s “toilet”. You were only allowed to use a real toilet twice a day, morning and evening, during inspections the guards called “exercise”. Prisoners were led out into the corridor, stood facing the wall, and scanned with a metal detector. The guards then turned them around and searched them again, checking their pockets, and made them take off their shoes, which were also scanned with the metal detector. Finally, they examined the prisoners’ feet.
After that you could go to the toilet, with a repeat of the whole procedure when you returned. Meanwhile, another militiaman searched the cell. You stood facing the wall to wait until he’d finished. And this happened twice a day, every morning and evening.
In the evening, I was given bedding of the sort you get on sleeper trains, but even more threadbare.
I couldn’t fall asleep at all that first night. I was kept awake by the bright light and loud music playing all night long. The guard had put it on to cheer him up, and since it was May 9 (when Belarus celebrates Victory Day), most of the songs were military and patriotic. It felt as if that guard had marched on Berlin himself in 1945.
That’s how I spent my first three days in detention. On Monday morning I was driven to court. Along the way, I noticed that, in the meantime, the cherry trees had blossomed in the city and the streets looked truly festive.
Waiting by the court building were my colleagues and other people who’d come to support me. The ones who brought me there, intending to sentence me, weren’t expecting this as they didn’t know I’d managed to get the word out.
At the start of the hearing, I asked the judge to give me time to find a lawyer in Minsk or Vitsebsk, as I don’t trust local ones. I knew full well that a lawyer wouldn’t be much help, but I needed time to sort myself out as I wasn’t feeling very well. The judge agreed and gave me until Wednesday, saying he’d let me know the exact time in a few minutes, but returned shortly to tell me I had just five hours because the hearing had to be held that day!
My colleagues from the association of journalists and a human rights organisation helped me find a lawyer. Meanwhile, I returned home briefly and only had time to get cleaned up, shave, and relax a little. Then I read on the Internet that people had been arrested all over the country.
I measured my blood pressure: it was pretty high. At first, I wanted to go to the doctor, but then my wife and I decided to wait.
At 4pm, the hearing began. Even though my lawyer hadn’t had much time, he’d managed to look through the case and find some irregularities. While he was reading them out, the judge made it plain that he wasn’t listening and was just waiting for him to finish. Then he passed sentence: a fine of 1,215 roubles (over 450 Euros) for working without accreditation, plus ten days’ detention for alleged illegal picketing. These Belarusian legal eagles were calling Tsikhanouski’s meeting with his YouTube channel subscribers a “picket”. At the time, I’d spoken to Syarhei Tsikhanouski for ten minutes, and for each minute they gave me 24 hours behind bars!
The hearing had barely begun when two militiamen showed up. They knew in advance how it would end and wanted to whisk me off in their car straight afterwards. My wife asked them to measure my blood pressure – it was very high: 125/190, and so was hers. An ambulance was called, and a nurse measured my blood pressure again. It had dropped, but was still high. In the ambulance I was given an ECG, and the nurse told me I’d be taken to hospital.
The militiamen drove along behind us. Funnily enough, the ambulance had its lights and sirens off, but they’d switched on their flashing lights. To them I was a prisoner, a criminal! And so the convoy arrived at the hospital.
The militiamen escorted us everywhere. This made my wife hysterical, and she screamed that they might as well take us straight to the morgue, then maybe the Belarusian state would be satisfied.
In hospital, I was given another ECG. The two militiamen stood by the whole time. In their black masks, they looked like ravens waiting for their victim. They only left after the doctor wrote them a document confirming I was to be admitted to the emergency ward, where I spent nearly two days.
I’m thankful to the doctors, who truly helped me. After the emergency ward, I needed to spend another two weeks convalescing in hospital, but a doctor friend warned me that I’d be on the same ward as coronavirus patients, so it’d be better to refuse further hospitalisation and spend the time at home in bed. So that’s what I did.
I’d hardly managed to get home – I live 500 metres away from the hospital – when the militiamen brought me a court ruling and warned that I had to report in to complete my sentence next Monday. I said I would. What else could I do?! But the court wrecked my plans. The next day, I was handed a new ruling, saying that I had to be back in prison that coming Friday. Clearly someone was desperate to see me back on that bunk.
In the evening of Friday, May 15, I was back in prison. The cell was more spacious this time: five whole paces from wall to wall, but I wasn’t alone there. I was in with a young lad, Valodzya, who’d walked into a shop and stolen a couple of bottles of vodka.
As it turned out, Valodzya was a regular. He’d already served time here for theft, so he told me a lot about prison life. He even made a tea stirrer. That stirrer deserves a special mention. You’re not allowed any metal objects in the cell, so tea is drunk from plastic cups, but no one gives you a plastic spoon. If you haven’t brought your own (and you wouldn’t know, the first time), you’ll have problems stirring your sugar.
Then Valodzya asked the guard for some magazines, which he brought. They included a Russian Glamour magazine from 2014 on thick, glossy paper. Volodya tore out a page with a photo of Kim Kardashian, and a moment later the stirrer was ready. It lasted us for a whole week, and I kept it as a souvenir from prison. That’s how we stirred our tea with Kim’s lovely legs.
There are metal dishes in prison, of course, but they only hand them out at mealtimes. Once a day, they bring you your rations of bread, sugar, and tea. They normally pour the sugar and tea onto scraps of newspaper, but if there are two prisoners, they might just pour it onto a piece of bread.
What was the hardest thing during those days? The lack of information on what was going on outside the walls. No contact with family and friends, no news. For journalists, I think the latter is the hardest thing. I didn’t even have my watch, so we could either ask the guard what the time was, or count the bells of the nearby church.
And it was fairly cold in the cells. They switched the heating off at the start of May, but the walls hadn’t managed to warm up from the sun yet. So I had to wear my coat in the daytime and sleep fully clothed at night, and you had to pull the cover up over your head – it was warmer that way, and it blocked out the light.
What kept me going? I knew I wasn’t alone. My friends were supporting me, not only in Belarus. I often thought about prisoners in Stalin’s time, whose conditions were incomparably worse. That also gave me strength, as did the conviction that the truth is on our side and, sooner or later, we will live in a normal, European country.
Zmitser Lupach / belsat.eu