On a hot day of 10 August 2020, Mikita Zalatarou was standing at a bus stop in the central square of the city of Homel in south-eastern Belarus. Everyone around him was intensely discussing the results of presidential elections that had just ended, and many people were protesting that day and the night before. The square was crowded. Mikita was just 16 and too young to vote that year.
Suddenly, through the street noise, he could hear someone shout “Run!” People rushed by him, and he instinctively ran with them fleeing the invisible danger. The crowd was chased by the riot police (OMON) – like everywhere else in Belarus, the security forces were ordered to disperse any gatherings. Alyaksandr Lukashenka immediately claimed victory in presidential elections despite the results being widely disputed – and the government was determined to shut down any dissent. Mikita’s life was about to be turned upside down, but he was yet to realise it.
The next day, several police officers came to his home to arrest him. Mikita was accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at two policemen during protests.
During that time, mass protests were happening across Belarus, including Homel. After presidential elections on 9 August, Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared himself the winner.
The night when the election results were announced, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk, Homel, Brest and other cities to protest against Lukashenka’s declared victory. The authorities instantly responded to the peaceful demonstrations on 9 August and the following days with unprecedented violence and indiscriminate arrests.
Peaceful demonstrators, civil society activists, journalists and bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, got arrested, questioned for hours, beaten and tortured. Over the following months, the mechanism of repressions kicked into high gear. Hundreds of dissenters faced criminal charges. The authorities closed down independent media outlets and NGOs; journalists were beaten and detained. People could lose their job or even life for their peaceful opinions. People from almost all social groups in Belarus, including medics, athletes or artists, were persecuted.
In just over a year since the start of protests and repressions, more than 30,000 people were detained after being charged with administrative offences related to their participation in peaceful demonstrations. The number of peaceful protesters, journalists and human rights defenders wrongfully sentenced to lengthy prison terms on criminal charges has been ever-growing.
Mikita was among the thousands arrested over the first days of protests. Following his arrest, he was taken to a police station where he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks. Seven months later, on 22 February 2021, in a stuffy courtroom, he was sentenced to five years in a penal colony by the Central District Court in Homel.
The prosecution based its case on two main pieces of “evidence”: a video showing a person throwing a Molotov cocktail at policemen and the testimony of a taxi driver who had driven Mikita away from the city centre on 10 August. The person on the video footage was unidentifiable, and the taxi driver said that Mikita discarded a bottle in a trash bin before getting into his car. No other evidence of Mikita’s involvement in “mass disorder” was presented, and hardly could the events of that day in Homel be described as “mass disorder”.
Mikita was sent to a juvenile educational colony.
Educational Colony 2 No. 2 at 4 Batova Street in Bobruisk is a large facility behind a tall fence, surrounded by high-rise buildings. From the windows of the colony buildings, red and white chimneys of the Bobruisk Thermoelectric Power Plant can be seen.
[Mikita] would not admit even if things were bad [in prison] because all conversations are monitored.Mikita's father
Mikita tells his parents very little about his life in prison. He keeps saying that everything is fine, but Mikhail, Mikita’s father, believes that “he would not admit [otherwise] even if things were bad because all conversations are monitored.” Mikita has been given some medications for epilepsy — a disorder he has been living with since childhood, but he does not know what they are exactly.
His mother came to the colony to visit him not long ago. It took her a while to prepare for her 150 km journey from Homel to Bobruisk and pack all the food, medications and other necessary items. However, she was not let in. She stood at the closed gates for a long time until a guard approached her. He said that Mikita is all right, but refused to let her inside or take a parcel for her son.
Later, Mikita’s parents learned that at the time he had been placed in a punitive isolation cell where he spent almost two weeks. The reason for his punishment remains unknown. Upon his arrival to the educational colony, Mikita got a yellow label as an “extremist”. Now he has a red label that means “inclined to escaping”, and the reason for this also remains unknown. His parents say that now he has been treated more harshly.
According to human rights defenders, this kind of prisoner labelling is widespread in Belarusian correctional facilities, and the labels can often be predictors of how harsh the treatment of the prisoner will be.
I tell him to keep his head down, to learn, to study languages, English [for example]. I could send him books. But this is impossible: they are so busy there that they do not have a free minute.Mikita's father
“I tell him to keep his head down, to learn, to study languages, English [for example]. I could send him books. But this is impossible: they are so busy there that they do not have a free minute,” his father says.
Mikita’s parents are hoping to find money to hire a lawyer, “kind of for moral support” — they do not believe in justice in Belarus anymore. Defence lawyers are compelled to sign non-disclose agreements regarding information on the cases they are working on. This practice is illegal, but if they refuse, they risk getting disbarred. So even having a lawyer visiting their son, Mikita’s parents still won’t be able to learn how he is doing, but at least they will know that someone has seen him alive. However, with widespread repression and the system set to break people’s spirit and strip them of rights and protections, this piece of knowledge will be worth it.
Mikita is not allowed to receive letters, but, as his father says with a bleak smile, “if the colony administration starts getting hundreds of letters from all over the world, it will drive them crazy.” “When this is over, we’ll go fishing together,” he promises.