A construction worker, a web designer, a university student, an engineer – these Belarusians had little in common, but human rights activists say they shared a similar fate: abuse, humiliation, and in some cases total torture at the hands. of his jailers. .

Largely peaceful protests erupted last month in the former Soviet republic after authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory – a fraudulent victory, according to the opposition. Thousands of protesters were swept up in a wave of arrests.

Now, a leading human rights group has compiled one of the most detailed files yet on the mistreatment of hundreds of detainees, some of whom reported heartbreaking beatings, electric shocks, miserable prison conditions and sexual abuse in the early days. of the protests.

« Is this leg really broken? » a 35-year-old construction worker said riot police asked him as they trampled and jabbed his shattered limb.

A 28-year-old woman, who was trapped in a jail cell so tightly packed that the occupants could barely move or breathe, said guards responded to her pleas for more space by spraying them with cold water.

An 18-year-old college student said police broke his nose with a kick to the face, then ripped open his pants and threatened to rape him with a grenade.

The Human Rights Watch report, released Tuesday, comes as international agencies like the United Nations Human Rights Council are preparing to debate the events in Belarus, but activists hope to push for formal investigations. Although the European Union is preparing sanctions, Lukashenko is defying the opposition’s demands that he step aside.

Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, apparently hoped that a harsh crackdown in the initial phase of the protests would terrorize people to stay off the streets. That was a shock tactic that worked in the past, said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a researcher at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, but this time it apparently backfired.

« The initial protest was not that massive, » he said. But the more reports have emerged of abuses in detention centers, « the more people take to the streets and express solidarity. »

He cited scenarios such as students being detained and beaten, and the subsequent outrage at the treatment that led their parents and teachers to the streets.

Scattered accounts of abuse were initially shared among friends and family, or posted on social media. But its pervasive and systemic nature quickly became apparent, as did the realization that riot police and other law enforcement officers must have had free rein to quell the protests by whatever means they wanted, without fear of punishment.

« The sheer brutality of the crackdown shows how far the Belarusian authorities will go to silence people, » said Hugh Williamson, director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

Now, as the opposition struggles to channel international shame into meaningful action to hold Lukashenko and his government accountable, meticulous documentation is helping build a case that gross rights abuses have been committed.

Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 27 former detainees, 21 men and six women, most of them arrested just before or in the few days after the August 9 elections. The rights group said it also spoke with witnesses and healthcare workers and examined photographs, videos and medical records.

« Victims described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks and, in at least one case, rape, » the report says. « They had serious injuries, including broken bones, broken teeth, skin wounds, electrical burns, and minor traumatic brain injuries. »

Half a dozen of those interviewed were hospitalized after their release, the group said. Some were still bruised, bloody, or in casts and bandages when the interviews took place.

Detainees reported that police, backed by riot control agents known as OMON, or special task force, and special forces, or Spetznaz, “picked them up from the streets, in some cases with extreme violence, and then beat them in dangerously confined spaces. in vehicles, where they had trouble breathing.

Many of those arrested had never had a problem with the police. A 31-year-old fintech specialist named Kim Mazur told Human Rights Watch that he and a friend were pulled from their car in the capital. They took him to a prison on the outskirts of Minsk and threw him into a truck that was already full of detainees, he said.

« You have to crawl like a worm on top of the others while the OMON guys beat you to go faster, » he said.

The report’s timing is focused on the early days of the protests, but as the demonstrations have continued, some observers cite a resurgence of violent tactics initially employed by riot police and other law enforcement authorities. At last weekend’s demonstrations, female protesters appeared to be more of a police target than before.

Another ongoing means of intimidation, researcher Shmatsina said, is randomly grabbing bystanders, whether or not they are participating in demonstrations. « They stop just strangers on their way to work, driving, etc., so that people feel unsafe and scared, » he said. But he said it had the « opposite effect. »

Some of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were determined to seek justice for their ordeal.

Pavel Pogartsev, a 20-year-old student, said he was beaten with batons and suffered a concussion. An officer crushed his hand, threatening to break his fingers and toes if he refused to say who had coordinated the protests.

The whole experience, he said, left him feeling « braver. »