His voice shaky and all tight like a string, bags under his eyes as large and deep as soup bowls, his wrists evince recent scars. On June 3, state-own Belarusian All-National TV Television channel released an interview with dissident journalist Roman Protesevich, who testified against himself and the opposition.
A bit earlier, on May 23, Roman Protesevych was seized and arrested as a result of Belarus forces hijacking a plane on orders of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, “Europe’s last dictator.”
What happened throughout the course of these days to squeeze out Protesevych’s confessions? How are they related to a deeply-rooted Soviet tradition of public confessions under duress? Where else today do we see these methods in use? Euromaidan Press has answers to these questions.
Before we start… Who is Roman Protasevich?
Roman Protasevich. Photo: RFE/RL
Born in Minsk, Belarus, Roman Protasevich is 26 years old. Roman was only 16 when he took part in his first political protests. But the price he paid for being a civically active citizen in an authoritarian state was expulsion from the lyceum of Belarusian National Technical University. For the same reason, Protasevich was dismissed from the journalism faculty at Belarus State University.
For more than eight years, Protasevich was involved with Belarus’ Fifth Estate. He held positions at RFE/RL and European Radio for Belarus. For nearly a year, Roman was a freelancer in Ukraine-controlled Donbas.
“After returning from the war in Ukraine I realized I will go work in other armed conflicts for the simple reason that people need to see things which should never happen,” commented the journalist in one of his interviews.
In 2019, he asked for asylum in Poland where he began his work as editor of Nexta [pronounced “Nekhta,” i.e. “somebody” in Belarusian — Ed], one of the most influential Belarus opposition Telegram channels.
Because Nexta’s primary focus is anti-Lukashenka protests, Belarus banned the channel and recognised it as extremist. Nexta played a key role in coordinating demonstrations against Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 26 consecutive years. With regard to large-scale protests in Belarus that followed the 2020 presidential election, most independent media were compelled to shut. That is why Telegram remained one of the few channels of information without censorship.
Last year, Belarus opened an investigation in several criminal cases against Roman Protasevich, charging him with mass riots, organising and planning acts to disrupt ordre public, and incitement to race, nationality, religion and social-based hatred.
And this isn’t the end. Belarus also marked the journalist as involved in terrorist activities. If tried, Protasevich would face up to 12 years behind bars. Roman once commented on this,
“After the Belarusian government labelled me as a terrorist, I received more greetings than for my birthday. Sometimes people recognise me on the streets and come up to shake hands, we make jokes. No negative implication s.”
Protasevich’s treatment clearly shows that Lukashenka is afraid of the opposition and pulls his hair out to discredit it. These punitive measures fall not only on dissidents but also on their families. On May 4, Roman Protasevich’s father, who served in the army for almost 30 years, was stripped of the rank of lieutenant colonel.
What was this plane landing on May 23 all about?
On May 23, the democratic world was shaken by the recent event that took place in Belarus. On orders from Lukashenko, kind of European Kim Jong-un, Belarus forces downed the plane to arrest Roman Protasevich. Ryanair Ireland-based Boeing 737-800 plane making its way from Athens to Vilnius was intercepted and directed to divert to Minsk under the pretext of “a potential security threat on board.”
In reality, no bomb was found on the plane. Belarus admitted this fact nevertheless initiating criminal proceedings with regard to a false bomb threat.
Cartoon: Hilal Özcan and Tjeerd Royaards
“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
On that sinister Sunday, Protasevich was returning from an economic forum held in Athens he attended together with Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya, who is widely believed to have won the election Lukashenka falsified in August 2020. At the airport, Protasevich noticed a man closely monitoring and photographing him.
According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, this forced downing of the plane might have violated the Chicago Convention dated 1944 which sets forth fundamental principles of international aviation.
“ Seizure of Protasevich is a serious blow to independent media and political activists in Belarus,” said By_sol Fund founder Andrii Stryzhak.
The democratic world strongly condemned this incident. The American secretary of state, Antony Blinken, even demanded an international investigation.
Only Russia enthusiastically rooted for the landing of the flight. Margarita Simonyan, the editor of Russian state-controlled RT TV, tweeted Lukashenka “played it beautifully.” Vyacheslav Lysakov, a Russian pro-Putin deputy, referred to the incident as a “brilliant special operation.”
Is Putin involved in this incident? And the key question: why in the world does Lukashenka need this “air piracy” act ?
Commenting on this incident, Ukrainian political analyst Taras Beresovets stressed that Russia had its finger in the pie.
First, it is important to remember that the operational capacity of Belarusian security services, especially in operations abroad, is scant and heavily depends on Russia. Second, by authorizing and controlling the landing of the Boeing, Putin left Lukashenka holding the bag. Now, everyone and their mothers forgot that “Putin is a killer” and instead, they deem Lukashenka a devil incarnate. Clever move on Putin’s side in the run-up to a meeting with President Biden in Geneva on 16 June.
Cartoon: Hilal Özcan and Tjeerd Royaards
Lukashenka knew the downing of the flight would become a bone of contention between Belarus and the West. Yet, he resorted to such an edgy decision. This proves he had a bigger fish to fry: by arresting Protasevich, Lukashenka sent a strong signal to the Belarusian opposition that the repressive 1937 is coming back.
We will draw a parallel between Belarus in 2021 and Belarus (along with the whole Soviet Union) in 1937 later in the article. Lukashenka showed he would jump out of one’s skin to assert his authority and that he would hound opposition activists and journalist even in the next world.
And from the interview, we see this too.
Not only Protesevych’s arrest but also his so-called interview testify to Lukashenko’s motive of intimidation and terror of Belarus population.
In this interview, Roman Protesevych pleaded guilty to organizing demonstrations in Belarus. Let’s all agree that hearing this from an outspoken critic of Lukashenka’s regime is very odd.
Ukrainian psychologists analyzed the interview and commented on Batka’s (“father” in Belarusian, aka Lukashenka) rationale behind Protasevich’s case,
“Ask yourself, why would one take a person hostage for the whole world to see? Let us list common versions that can be found in media and internet publications. To show off one’s power? Wrong answer. This would be a secondary benefit but not an incentive. In order to neutralize an independent journalist? Wrong answer. No independent journalist can be that influential that for the sake of his capture a president, even an illegitimate one yet formally a president, committed an act of terrorism. ‘As a lesson to everybody else.’ This is an almost correct answer in the wrong wording.
All of us (regardless of Protasevich’s destiny) are targets. More precisely, it is our emotional, mental and behavioural reactions that will determine future developments. We should have felt our vulnerability and complete helplessness. What did we do as psychological protection in order to get away from these unbearable feelings? We started to discuss and criticize the behaviour of the hostage. Instead of analysing the nature of our responses and the hybrid methods of influencing the mass consciousness.”
The psychologists also pointed out that Protasevich’s interview includes clips of a video where Al Qaeda members behead hostages on the air. This is a well-studied method of demoralization and intimidation of whole communities.
How does Protasevich’s interview resemble the 1937 situation in the Soviet Union?
So, the answer to “why did Lukashenko do this” remains as plain as the sun at noonday:
this interview is a part of Belarusian policy of demoralization and intimidation of its own population.
And the methods used, namely torturing dissidents to squeeze out public admissions of guilt, are nothing new under the sun: it is rooted in the Soviet tradition of the Great Terror, Stalin’s purge of the thirties.
In 1937–1938, the Soviet Union saw the mass application of torture in criminal prosecution. Officers of NKVD, an abbreviation for the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union, literally beat a false confession out of innocent people. This was done to falsify cases concerning “conspiracy,” “espionage,” “terrorism.”
And the defendants’ “confessions” served as the one and only evidence in proceedings, simply because no such crimes were real.
In July 1937 in Moscow, at the meeting of regional NKVD heads in the preparation to the mass arrests of dissidents, Nikolai Yezhov, a Soviet secret police official under Joseph Stalin, and his deputy Mikhail Frinovsky directly authorized chekists (security service officers) to use physical means of influence.
That is when torture was legalized as a means of investigation.
The use of torture was also encouraged by Stalin personally in his special code cable dated January 1939.
Stalin in the thirties, like Lukashenko and Putin today, had full and sole control over state security. In the years of the Great Terror, he determined quotas for mass executions and camp sentences.
Russian historian and political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his “The Gulag Archipelago” (1973) on the basis of testimonies of many people who survived Stalin’s hell, described torture that send shivers down the spine.
Among them were many days without sleep, many hours of standing on the knees or sitting on the edge or foot of a chair… Prisoners were beaten in a variety of ways: with whips, rubber truncheons, sandbags, fists and legs.
As Solzhenitsyn notes, in 1937–1938 the use of torture was unregulated, so an amateur hour was allowed. They used whatever turned up, be it tight ropes or wire tourniquets, rubber or leather whips, sometimes with load, chains, parts of hoses, truncheons made of rubber tire and much more. Investigators could just let their imagination run free. They tortured the victims of terror by squeezing their skulls with iron rings, put them naked in an acid tub or a box full of bedbugs or ants, roll a hot ramp into the anus, or slowly boot crushing their genitals.
NKVD archives also disclose the tortures. For example, NKVD in Belarus documents state that “The arrestees were made stand on one leg throughout 24 hours, make 1,700 squats with a Bible, bark like a dog etc.”
Georgian NKVD officers showed brutality even to those sentenced to death. For example, with gun handles, they beat to the death a handcuffed helpless prisoner Mikhail Dzidzihyri under the very noses of other detainees, when all of them were placed in a van to go to the place of execution.
According to an NKVD in Ukraine document dated 8 January 1939, “As a result of the brutal beating of the prisoners, screams and groans were heard on the streets, which could become known within the masses.”
The only thing NKVD worried about was the spilling of information about these tortures into public view. It seems that Belarus today takes an analogous approach when it spares no effort to torture Protasevich and then just dims the lighting in filming the interview to hide his scars and bruises.
1937–1938 became the apotheosis of torture investigation in the USSR. This is how cases were falsified back then and this is how they are trumped-up today in Belarus. And not only there but also on the Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine since 2014.
So is torture as a means of extracting false confessions really used today?
Since 2014, Russia has used the Soviet method of torture to receive admission of guilt from Ukrainian political prisoners in occupied Donbas and Crimea. There are thousands of stories of Ukrainians who survived Russian captivity that make the hair stand up on the back of the neck.
The story of a 60-year-old vet Oleksandr Hryshchenko from Luhansk is one of them. He spent a year in the basement, or prison, in the so-called “LNR,” “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Oleksandr Hryshchenko. Photo: texty.org.ua
When his home city was occupied in 2014, Oleksandr went to his office to feed aquarium fish. There, he was met by pro-Russian militants who confiscated his phone and camera and found the photos of Russian military equipment enter Ukrainian territory, ruins after shellings, and pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Luhansk.
Soon, a car of a special counterterrorism unit “Batman” led by Oleksandr Biednov (nickname “Batman”), came to get Oleksandr Hryshchenko. At the destination, he was met by a group of militants. One of them said,
“If you tell us who you work for, which tasks you were entrusted with, whom to, where, and how you had to report, we will let you go. If you fail to answer, we will beat you, peel off your skin, cut you in parts and you will tell us everything.”
It is true that Oleksandr was never involved in any spying. So when the militants received no confessions they hoped for, they told Oleksandr they would hand him over to their “professional” who knows how to obtain admissions of guilt.
The militants brought Oleksandr to a dorm’s basement. The room was tiny, poorly lit, and soggy. There were three man in it: one with recent scars all over his face, one with crutches, and another one manifestly mentally ill. A few hours later, an executioner of the unit with the nickname “Maniac” (real name Serhii Konoplytsky), together with “Khokhol” (real name Serhii Zharinov) came for Oleksandr to transfer him to another cell. It was unfurnished. There were about ten men and women in the room.
Oleksandr was ordered to sit on the dirty floor. No sooner had he performed the order when he felt a kick in his chest and fell down. Then electric shocks, a collective beating with boots, fists, and a wood shampoo followed. Afterwards, they dropped a loop over Oleksandr’s neck and dragged him to an improvised torture chamber demanding him to give them some information.
When Oleksandr explained he had nothing to confess to, they resorted to even more brutal methods.
“Maniac” started beating the prisoner with a plastic stick but received no plea of guilty. Then he pulled out a surgeon’s fieldset and started demonstrating surgical equipment, such as surgical saw, scalpels. “Maniac” then proceeded to sawing between Oleksandr’s fingers insisting that the prisoner give confessions to his alleged espionage activities. He said Oleksandr would not get away with punishment if he passed out, as they had medicine to bring him back to consciousness. They said they would torture Oleksandr until they receive the confessions.
What is worse, after such tortures Oleksandr was placed naked in the cell with other men and women and forbidden to lay down. They gave him some food only two days later. From time to time, Oleksandr was visited by militants who would beat up him and his mates.
Oleksandr’s mates were also subjected to inhuman treatment. Among the prisoners were not only pro-Ukrainian locals of Luhansk, like Oleksandr but also pensioners detained on the way to their summer houses and for some reason accused of being the Ukrainian troops’ spotters; and even a minor, a 14-16 year-old-girl who was regularly taken to the militants’ positions so that they can satisfy their sexual needs.
Having spent half a year in captivity, Oleksandr was liberated. But today, several hundred hostages still remain in the basements of the so-called “LNR” and “DNR” (Donetsk People’s Republic).
- Read his full story:
- I survived the basement prisons of the “Luhansk People’s Republic.” Here is what I saw. Part 1
- I narrowly escaped death in dungeons of the “Luhansk People’s Republic.” This is what saved me. Part 2
Stanislav Klykh (left) demonstrates traces of torture at the trial in Grozny on 26 October 2015. Right: Mykola Karpiuk. Photo: Oleg Mezentsev
Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpiuk were two Ukrainians arbitrarily imprisoned in Russia. The men were charged with alleged felonies, viz. killing the Russians in the Chechen war. In fact, they never even visited that part of Russia. Klykh and Karpiuk admitted they were tortured to incriminate themselves. In one of their statements, they “recognised” that Ukraine’s then PM Arsenii Yatseniuk fought Dudayev’s separatist army in 1994-1995, which in no way could be true.
One of their “testimonies,” picked up by Russia’s investigative committee, named Ukraine’s timid-looking Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk as fighting alongside Dudayev’s separatist army in 1994-1995 (supposedly being 20 y.o. at the time)
In his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights dated 30 July 2015, Stanislav Klykh, a 40-year old teacher of history, said that tortures followed his arrest during a visit to his fiancee on 8 August 2014.
“ After I was arrested on 8 August 2014 I had been pressured to give a testimony. Illegal methods of inquiry and investigation were applied to me, including beatings and injuries with the use of handcuffs and electric current, prolonged kneeling, resulting numerous scars on my wrists, knees, and ankles.
I was also given alcohol and psychotropic drugs which were administered to me intravenously. All this took place in a temporary detention facility in Zelenokumsk and Vladikavkaz between 28.08 on 22.09 2014.
These methods were applied to me to force me to admit that I was allegedly in Chechnya in 1994-2000 and took part in the hostilities on the Dudayev’s side, participated in killing soldiers on ploshchad Minutka in Grozny, had intended to carry out terrorist attacks in different cities of Russia and supposedly arrived in Russia for this purpose.
Besides that, I was kept for several days in the Vladikavkaz prison without food or water. As a result, I was brought to a state of dystrophy, could not hold a spoon or pen in my hands, because my hands were dislocated from being chained to the bars.
The execution was attended by unidentified persons in masks that placed a bag over my head and secured it with tape before starting to torture me.
The interrogations usually ended in torture sessions with the participation of persons calling themselves “Yura,” “Sasha,” “Sergei,” “Veniamin,” and also employees of the detention facilities of Zelenokumsk and Vladikavkaz.
After the ”informal” conversations with Yura and others, I was led to testify to employees of the detention facilities. From Zelenokumsk, I remember E. Magomedov, from Vladikavkaz – S.Fedin. They also seemed to have been pressured.
In Vladikavkaz, I was given breaks from torture sessions for 2-3 days, so that I could recover. I was fed well during that time, and then torture with electric current followed.
At the detention centre in Vladikavkaz on ul. Pushkinskaya, where I was brought from the temporary detention centre in Vladikavkaz, I was beaten after my refusal to confess that I was in Chechnya (”Sasha” and ”Kolya” claimed they were from Moscow and gave me vodka for 2 nights in a row, after which I would lose consciousness until the next day), and then sent away on approximately 11 September 2014.
They beat me, and then again I spent several days in the prison yard without food and water, after which he was taken to a cell where I slept on the ground for four nights because I was not given a mattress and ordered to sleep there.
Then, on the second night, at approximately midnight, masked men came into my cell and dragged me into the basement, after which a man that called himself “Sasha” began to torture me with electric current which shocked me through metal caps that he placed on my fingers. This lasted for three nights in a row, during which he asked me about Chechnya and Crimea. If his answer did not satisfy him, he increased the voltage.
After each execution, masked men came to disinfect my wounds with iodine and brilliant green, because in some places my skin was worn off almost to the bones (to this day, I can’t stand on my knees or wear handcuffs because the layer of skin on my hands is still very thin).
After that a man that identified himself as “Veniamin” came in, said he was from another organization (?), and assured that I could be released at any day, stressing that my injuries were not life-threatening. He was interested in my thoughts about the museum of the artist Vasiliev in Moscow, archaeological investigations in Crimea, photos of VKontakte, my attitude to the conflict in Chechnya. He assured me that despite the low status of his organization in Vladikavkaz he would do everything possible o make sure that I was not tortured anymore, and indeed, the torturing stopped.
On the next day, “Yura” brought me milk and honey, I was given a mattress and allowed to sleep on the bed, but after two days the mattress was taken away again along with hygiene items. “Sasha” came into the cell, hit me in the ribs and legs and said that I should say that I cut the throat of two Russian soldiers on ploshchad Minutka.”
As for Mykola Karpiuk, a Right Sector member, he was detained at the Russian-Ukrainian border on 17 March 2014. According to Karpiuk, he arrived in Russia to meet with someone from Putin’s circle and dissuade him from holding the so-called “referendum” intended to provide a “legal” basis for Russia to annex Crimea. Karpiuk was accused of taking part in the Chechnya war on the separatists’ side in 1994-2001.
Like Klykh, Karpiuk was subjected to torture into testifying against himself and others.
“ The group’s leader called himself Maksim and told me what would be done to me in order to make me confess to the alleged crimes. He said that at first I will be tormented by electric current and explained in what way it will be administered. Then physical violence will be used, and if these methods will not give any result, then my wife and son would be kidnapped. They will be subjected to the same violence and I will be forced to confess anyway. My assurances that I had never been in Chechnya were not taken into account.
My hands were fastened behind my back with handcuffs. Then my legs and arms and were tied with ropes and the handcuffs were removed. Terminals were attached to the second toe of my right foot and middle finger of my right hand. Then electric current of varying duration started to pass through me: it could last for several dozen seconds, could happen in instantaneous thrusts, then for a long time. How long this lasted I can’t say. I confessed to nothing, because I did not participate in any hostilities.
During this kind of “interrogation” I was often told “You did that,” “You arrived in Grozny at that time and did this and that,” “These people were with you” and presented similar accusations. After some time the torture stopped and I was told that our conversation would be continued the next night. They brought me to the detention center, took off the blindfold and led me into an investigation room where I was closed in a 1×1 m cell behind bars. Here I was kept for four days and deprived of sleep. Guards taking shifts were always in the room, making sure that I didn’t sleep…
After the torture by electricity my fingers went numb. I could hardly feel them. I was taken out for these “procedures” in the course of four nights. Electricity was passed through the different parts of my body: through the whole body, through the heart, through the genitalia. I shoved some kinds of needles under my fingernails, but I did not feel pain, probably because I lost sensitivity in my fingers.
On March 25 I was once again brought to the “interrogation.” This time they did not bind my feet. Maksim said that they were tired of my stubbornness, and he gave the command to grab my son and bring him there, in order to subject to the same torture before my eyes. He also said that, if possible, they will bring my wife. But the son would be enough for them. I told them to not touch my son and wife and that I was willing to take the blame and to sign all the necessary documents. Maxim asked me to tell him my mind. I told him what I had heard from them under torture. I don’t know what happened next. I started raving…
Maxim told me that I had already destroyed my liver and heart…
I realized that I had slandered many people, my friends and comrades. When I got into my cell, I found a rusty nail, jammed it into the wall and wanted to slit my throat. I knew that I would be able to escape the situation only by committing suicide. But there was a hidden camera inside the cell. Guards burst inside, took away the nail, searched the cell, and for a long time tracked my actions.
Of course, I have false testimonies against many people on my conscience now. I will carry this remorse with me until my last days. Let these people forgive me. I did this not with malicious intent, but in order to protect my son and wife…”
You may wonder, why does Russia resort to such inhuman methods to pound out false confessions and falsely accuse innocent people? A justified guess would be that it needs these show trials against imaginary Ukrainian nationalists, the incarnation of Russia’s enemy, to endorse support for Putin.
Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpiuk are now free, as a result of a prisoner swap with Russia. But the struggle for the liberation of the Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners is ongoing.
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