Several people who were detained for participating in mass protests in Belarus this week allege that the country’s security forces beat, tortured and humiliated them while in government custody.
The protesters are among the thousands of people who were arrested in the sometimes violent unrest that has rocked the former Soviet republic since its presidential election on Sunday, which many believe was rigged.
The Belarusian Central Elections Committee (CEC) on Friday announced its final results, giving embattled President Alexander Lukashenko 80.1% of the vote and opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya 10.1%.
Opposition groups claim the election was marred by fraud to keep Lukashenko in power, and protests began after exit polls showed Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, had won by a landslide.
Tikhanovskaya on Friday called for city mayors to organize peaceful protests this weekend, and asked her supporters to sign an online petition demanding a vote recount, with the presence of independent observers.
Lukashenko’s government had already been accused of responding to the protests with disproportionate force and violence, but the accusations of mistreating people behind bars has prompted renewed public outrage toward the government.
A woman named Olesya told CNN that she was arrested Sunday while walking down the street alongside her boyfriend in the capital, Minsk.
She said she was forced to strip naked alongside other women before being searched at a detention center. Olesya, who declined to give her last name for safety reasons, said she was then put in a small cell with 17 other women. All of them were given one water bottle and no food and forced to sleep on the floor or a small table.
The guards periodically cut off their access to water to silence them. They also denied medical assistance to one of the women, who had been injured by a rubber bullet.
Olesya said she spent around 14 hours inside the facility and was released after being forced to sign a paper with what she says were false charges against her. However, her boyfriend is still missing. She is very worried because men appear to be treated much worse than women, according to witness accounts.
“They would put four men in a 1.5 meter (5 foot) wide cell, three were standing but they made the fourth one crawl inside like a dog and stand on his knees,” said Olesya.
Olesya said she keeps coming back to the detention center both to get information about her partner and help others.
“It was very scary to wait outside, we could hear how they were beaten, they wailed, they screamed,” she said. “They stormed out of there with crazy eyes and half-conscious … they just ran in whatever direction the guards told them to and also told them not to approach us, who could help them get home, threatening they would put them back into prison.”
Authorities release 2,000 people
Belarus authorities have now released more than 2,000 people detained amid the ongoing protests, according to a Friday statement from its interior ministry.
The authorities were “concerned about the problem of overcrowding in places of detention,” the statement said. It suggested more people would be released. “We understand that it is not as fast as we would like. We are doing everything we can to resolve this situation,” the statement said.