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A still image from a video purportedly showing prison officials bandaging the head of a prisoner they identify as Vitold Ashurak.

MINSK -- The body of a Belarusian activist who died in prison last week was handed over to relatives with his head wrapped in bandages, a family friend told local media.

Vitold Ashurak, 50, died on May 21 while serving a five-year term for participating in anti-government protests. He was sentenced in January.

According to a state medical report the Ashurak family was given on May 25 along with his body, the cause of death has yet to be determined. Relatives said they were told he had died of a heart attack. Ashurak’s wife told media earlier in the week that her husband had no previous heart issues.

Family friend and journalist Volha Bykouskaya told media that Ashurak was wrapped in bandages from the top of his head to his nose and “only his mouth was visible.”

Vitold Ashurak
Vitold Ashurak

The Ashurak family has declined to speak with journalists about the condition of Ashurak's body and will not seek an independent autopsy.

Belarus’s Investigative Committee published a video later on May 25 purporting to show Ashurak collapsing twice while in his prison cell. Guards can be seen applying a bandage to the prisoner’s head after the first fall.

RFE/RL could not immediately confirm if the prisoner in the video is Ashurak.

Zmitser Karol, a Belarusian surgeon who watched the 55-second video, said the prisoner appears to be very weak from malnutrition. Karol questioned why authorities would leave such a prisoner alone in his cell after the first fall if he was having heart problems.

Andrey Bandarenka, a human rights activist who served eight months in the same prison in Shklov in eastern Belarus, told RFE/RL that the person in the video is in a punitive detention cell for those accused of violating penitentiary rules.

In a Facebook post on May 16, Bykouskaya said she had received her first letter from Ashurak since he was jailed. She said he said he was “holding on,” even though his imprisonment was “difficult.”

Bykouskaya said Ashurak and other political prisoners in Shklov had to wear yellow tags to differentiate themselves from other prisoners.

Ashurak, 50, was a member of the Belarusian Popular Front opposition party and a coordinator of the For Freedom movement.

He took active part in the wave of peaceful protests following the August 9 presidential election that the opposition says was rigged in favor of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Belarusian authorities responded to the demonstrations with a violent crackdown, detaining tens of thousands of protesters over the ensuing months.

Human Rights Watch said Belarusian police subjected hundreds of protesters to torture and other ill-treatment, including holding them in inhuman and degrading conditions. Several protesters died as a result of police actions.

At a closed-door trial in January, a court found Ashurak guilty of gross violations of public order and violence against police.

He was one of more than 400 political prisoners jailed following the presidential election, according to local rights groups.

Exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said earlier in the week that she was "devastated" to hear Ashurak had died and lashed out at authorities.

"People are not just suffering, people die because of the regime in Belarus," she said in a post to Twitter.

The European Union and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenka and dozens of officials and businessmen with asset freezes and visa bans over the brutal treatment of the protesters.

Russian Court Bailiffs Again Enter RFE/RL's Moscow Bureau
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Court bailiffs have again visited RFE/RL’s Moscow offices on May 25 -- photographing computers and other equipment they’ve threatened to seize over unpaid fines imposed under Russia’s controversial “foreign agents” law. Once all alleged violations are adjudicated by Russian courts, they are expected to result in fines of $2.4 million. The law requires foreign-funded NGOs to identify themselves as “foreign agents” if they are deemed by Moscow to be engaged in political activity. The law is increasingly being used against Russian-language media outlets in the country. RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has called on the Russian government "to stop targeting journalists and blocking the Russian people's access to information."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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