A political prisoner in Belarus smuggles out account of beatings after writing on toilet paper

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TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A political prisoner in Belarus has shed light on the country's brutal prison system by smuggling out her story written on pieces of toilet paper.

Katsiaryna Novikava, 38, described being repeatedly beaten by security forces after she was detained in June 2023 wearing only a nightshirt. She became one of hundreds of political prisoners in the country of 9.5 million people ruled by authoritarian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

“Everyone who was in the office beat me. They hit me on the head,” Novikava wrote, describing how she was assaulted during interrogation in several detention centers. Her account was published in independent Belarusian media.

Belarus was rocked by mass protests during Lukashenko’s controversial re-election in August 2020 for a sixth term, which the opposition and Western nations condemned as fraudulent. Since then, Belarusian authorities have detained more than 35,000 people, many of whom were tortured in custody, forced to flee the country and labeled “extremists” by authorities, according to the Belarusian human rights center Viasna.

Novikava, who participated in opposition protests, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison in January. She was convicted for inciting hatred and interfering with the work of an Interior Ministry employee.

Novikava's health condition worsened after being beaten, and she said she is not getting the required medical attention.

“I fell from the upper bunk of my bed, and my head hit a wooden shelf," Novikava wrote, adding that her injury was photographed but no treatment was given.

Although most political prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, Novikava said she was kept in the same cell as Marina Zolatava, editor-in-chief of the country’s largest independent online news outlet, Tut.by, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

“The letters almost never arrive. Even drawings were banned,” Novikava added.

Viasna said Novikava’s messages should be investigated by the U.N. Committee Against Torture.

“Novikava’s letter sheds light on the catastrophic situation for political prisoners in Belarusian prisons,” Viasna's Pavel Sapelka told The Associated Press, adding that Belarusian authorities know that "systemic bullying, beatings, denial of medical care and information isolation amounts to the torture of political prisoners.”

Key Belarusian political figures including Viktar Babaryka, Maria Kolesnikova, Mikola Statkevich and Maxim Znak have been held in such conditions, and there has been no word from them for more than a year.

There are currently 1,385 political prisoners in Belarus, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski. At least six political prisoners have died behind bars, Viasna said.

Human rights advocates are documenting torture and illegal treatment of prisoners in Belarus with such regularity that the country is "rapidly turning into a black hole in Europe," Sapelka said.