Stories of two Poles who were tortured by Belarusian security forces in August
Two Polish citizens, Witold Dobrowolski and Kacper Sinicki, arrived to Belarus on the eve of the August elections to document the events in Minsk. On August 10, they were detained and severely beaten by riot police. The incident is being investigated by the Polish prosecutor’s office. The two Poles told their stories to Radio Svaboda.
“The level of mass violence was shocking. I could not imagine that the detentions would be so severe. Before the visit to Belarus, I thought that I would not be beaten, maybe only the equipment would be damaged. And it turned out quite the opposite”, Witold Dobrowolski says.
Witold, who has successfully covered the war in Donbass and the protests in Hong Kong, admits that this is the first time he has encountered such an attitude towards journalists.
On the evening of August 10, 28-year-old Witold Dobrowolski and 24-year-old tourist Kacper Sinicki (both graduates of the Center for Eastern European Studies at the University of Warsaw) left a cafe in central Minsk to head to the protest. However, they did not go far. They were surrounded by riot police. After checking things and documents, they were put in a police van, where Witold was beaten to the point of unconsciousness. Later, in a police van, the foreigners were taken to the Frunzyenski police department.
According to Witold, along with hundreds of other people, the police with handcuffed, humiliated and intimidated them. Everything lasted from the evening until 3pm the next day.
“We were beaten, including for our nationality. Police officers pointed out that anti-communist historical policy was developed in Poland, that we were falsifying history. They asked who won World War II, and any answer was considered incorrect. “Psheki” [offensive Russian slur to call Polish people], “p … ary” [offensive homophobic slur] were repeatedly yelled in our direction. We heard a lot of slurs”, – Casper says.
“Repeat it as a prayer: the best president in the world – Lukashenka”
The hardest test for them was a 5-hour kneeling near the wall, with their heads to the ground, hands behind their backs.
“We were completely powerless. If someone could not stay like this then he would be beaten. It was shocking that while we were in this situation, the staff did not pay attention to the state of human health. Maybe someone had a knee surgery? Kacper asks. “Even if the man was covered in blood, no one cared”.
Witold assesses the behavior of the security officers during the detention as unrestricted.
“They were like crazy dogs that broke free from the chain. The detainee had to guess what each of these thugs [police] intended to do. When people could no longer kneel and beg for mercy, the police ordered, as a prayer, to repeat the answer to the question: “Who is the best president in the world and in Belarus?”. They said to the detainees: “You are not worthy of respect, because you are destroying the city we are defending”, – said the photojournalist. – In the policeman’s behavior it was visible that they were angry about any small victories of the protesters in the clashes with the security forces. They took revenge on us for that”.
“Did you come to organize a color revolution?”
It seemed to the Polish guests that the brutal treatment of the detainees by the police was a pre-arranged scenario. In their view, it looked like “a huge logistical operation organized from the above”.
On August 12, in a crowded police van, both were taken to prison № 8 in Zhodzina. Witold claims that the obscurity was frightening at that moment. The thought flashed in my head: “Can a Polish journalist be taken, for example, to the forest?”. I did not want to believe it.
“On the way to the remand prison we drove in very awkward positions. One man was sitting below and the other was almost on his shoulders. The riot policeman told one of the detainees: “You can even insult a Pole”. Later he asked questions: “Why are you stuck here?”, “Why are you not at home?”, “They came to organize a color revolution?”. We were forced to confirm it”, – Kacper Sinicki says.
From the conversations of the riot policemen, he was under the impression that the security officers were ideologically brainwashed.
“They believed that the protesters were getting money, they tried to convince us of that. Lukashenka’s rhetoric on Poland and state security issues slipped through their conversations”.
Kacper and Witold describe their two-day stay in the Zhodzina prison cell positively: there was water, food and a toilet. After the previous day of torture, they said, that was more than enough.
“Cellmates were apologizing”
“My cellmates were glad that a Polish journalist was sitting with them. However, many were surprised that the treatment of foreign nationals was the same -– equally harsh. Some Belarusians apologized, regretting that this is happening in their country”, – Witold Dobrowolski recalls.
The Poles were not prosecuted because there was no translator. On August 13, they were taken out of the cell. They were told to pick up their things that, surprisingly, were in order. There are even photos left on the memory card in the camera. At the exit, at the gate, the Polish consul was waiting for them.
“In Poland, many institutions have joined forces to help free us – the family, the government, opposition politicians, ambassadors, MPs, associations of journalists, both domestic and international lawyers, Belarusians themselves, even lecturers from our university”.
Immediately after their release, Kacper and Witold learned from phone calls from relatives that their detention and Belarusian protests had become one of the main topics in the Polish media. They spent their first night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day they already had tickets for the flight to Warsaw. Witold claims that because of the bruise under his eye during the border control, KGB officers summoned him for a quick interrogation, after which they ordered to remove the pictures. He, however, took care in advance to save them.
“I will support the victory of the Belarusians”
The Poles admit that after their release they did not leave thoughts about their former cellmates. They keep in touch with them to this day.
“In Zhodzina, a disabled person was sitting with me, who did not even fully understand the situation. He is about 20, but the development is at the level of a young child. The guy was detained near the store. As a result, he was sentenced to 10 days in prison, the trial lasted only a couple of minutes. It was a shock for me”, – Kacper Sinicki recalls.
After returning to Poland, he became one of the coordinators of assistance to repressed Belarusians in the fund “Belarusian House in Warsaw” – he offered them advice, picked them up from the station, helped to organize a transfer to the place where they receive medical treatment. He says that he is “involved in the Belarusian revolution”.
Today they continue to follow the events in Belarus, and emphasize that they will come as soon as the regime changes. They are sure that Lukashenka’s rule will end soon.
“I remember how the riot policeman told me: “This is our Belarusian hospitality”, – laughing, Kacper says. – But in fact Belarus made a positive impression on me. I love Belarusians, I will always support them and support their victory. What happened to us is the fault of an organized criminal group that terrorizes the people. These are not real Belarusians, but Lukashenka”.
Today the Polish prosecutor’s office is dealing with the case of torture of Dobrowolski and Sinicki. Although the Poles cannot disclose the details of the investigation yet, they assure that it will receive international publicity.