MINSK -- Prisoners packed into barracks deep in the forest, ringed by meters-high fencing, topped with barbed wire, and complete with guard dogs and watch towers.
What sounds like something from the pages of World War II appears to have been the actual fate of more than 100 Belarusians in August 2020, when protests erupted across the country after a presidential election that tens of thousands believe was rigged to extend the decades-long rule of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The camp near Slutsk, some 100 kilometers south of the capital, Minsk, was a detox center before its alleged mercurial makeover and was shut down quickly and seemingly forgotten.
Now, however, apparent photographic evidence has emerged, and some of those who say they were held there have spoken out.
The revelations follow close on the heels of the emergence of a leaked audio recording allegedly of a top Interior Ministry official speaking some months later of plans to build a similar camp for "hard-core" anti-Lukashenka protesters.
Lukashenka's government dismissed the earlier report of plans to build an internment camp as "fake" news, but has so far not reacted to claims it actually operated one.
Lukashenka faces growing international isolation for his government's alleged rigging of the August 9 vote and the brutal postelection crackdown.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have been detained in protests that have continued nearly nonstop since the election. Hundreds have been victims of alleged torture, according to rights monitors. Lukashenka and top officials in his government have been placed under sanctions by the United States, the European Union, and Canada, among others.
"This operation reflects Lukashenka's intention to suppress street protests by any means, as we have been observing since the beginning of the Belarus political crisis," explained Arseny Sivitsky, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies.
The camp at Slutsk is reported to have operated only for a few days, on August 13-15. Many of those detained there appear to have been transported from Minsk's Akrestsina detention facility, one of the most notorious such centers in Belarus.
As Amnesty International and other rights monitors have documented, Akrestsina has been the site of brutal prisoner treatment. For example, on August 13 -14, Amnesty recently reported, "relatives of those detained at Akrestsina recorded the sounds of incessant beatings which were clearly audible in the street, and numerous voices screaming out in agony with some begging for mercy."
Dzmitry Dzmitryeu, a photographer for the independent Belarusian news weekly Novy chas (New Time) and a former police officer, was detained on August 9 outside a polling station in Minsk, allegedly for political agitation. He said he was first taken to the Akrestsina detention center before being transported to the Slutsk camp on August 13.
"It was obvious that the whole territory had just been enclosed by high fencing," he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "It was made of fresh wood that didn’t look weathered yet. The fence was 5 meters high. And the watchtowers were brand new. Guards were posted there. Everything was absolutely fresh."
Zmitser Khvedaruk says he was transferred to the camp in Slutsk from Akrestsina on August 13.
"We weren't told where we were being taken," he told RFE/RL. "When we arrived, we were left outside in the cold near a wall. We were in the same clothes [as when arrested]; it was very cold. Then they took me and gave me a cold shower and I couldn't dry myself. Then, a member of the Interior Ministry told us that we were in the detention center in Slutsk. From my knowledge of Belarusian prisons, I knew that in Slutsk no such institution existed. It was dark, fenced in, there were guards with dogs. It was absolutely clear where we were."
Khvedaruk said he spent one night in a barracks at the Slutsk camp with approximately 150 other people. Like Dzmitryeu, he said before they were released the next day they were all forced to sign a document that included a warning they would be reinterned if arrested again.
"It was a camp," said another Slutsk detainee who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from the authorities. "Walls, watch towers, barbed wire. It was in the forest, far from the road. The area [of the camp] was relatively big. In our barracks there were about 100 people. There were about three or four such barracks, I can't remember exactly. We were told if we didn't follow orders, we would be returned to Akrestsina."
Orders to establish the camp came from the Belarusian prison authorities on August 10, according to an individual who said he was involved in the project and who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. That source also provided photographs of what he said was the site.
"On August 10, the Corrections Department was instructed to urgently prepare one of its facilities for the creation of a camp. The decision was made to use Compulsory Rehabilitation Center No. 3 (LPP-3) for this purpose," the source said. "The people who were being treated there at the time were immediately transferred to other centers. On August 12, LPP-3 was prepared for use as a site for detaining individuals under paramilitary guard."
According to RFE/RL's source, before those being treated for alcoholism at LPP-3 were transferred, they were forced to work reconfiguring the site, including digging deep holes and putting up camp walls and barbed wire.
For reasons that remain unclear, as quickly as the camp at Slutsk was opened it was shut down on August 15.
More Camps To Come?
The revelations come after a senior Belarusian Interior Ministry official, Deputy Interior Minister Mikalay Karpyankou, was apparently caught on audio in October discussing plans to set up a similar detention camp at a different location.
In the recording, the voice alleged to be that of Karpyankou is heard discussing what he says are plans to build a long-term internment facility in Ivatsevichy, in southwestern Belarus, that is already home to a penitentiary.
"We are also talking about the possibly of building a camp for protesters. And a database is being created," the voice says, adding that "hard-core" protesters would be "resettled" at the facility, which would be enclosed with "barbed-wire fencing." It is unclear how far such plans have advanced, if at all.
The Interior Ministry dismissed the recording, which was released on social media earlier this month by the By Pol Initiative -- a group of former Belarusian security and justice officials and officers who have abandoned Lukashenka and joined the opposition -- as "fake" news.
Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya was one of many who said they were convinced of the recording's authenticity, expressing shock and anger at its contents.
With support at home and abroad evaporating, Lukashenka has few levers at his disposal to retain his grip on power except additional repressions, Sivitsky explained to RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.
"And these tactics have already brought some results -- protest activities have decreased in numbers compared to August-September 2020," Sivitsky said. "However, it costs a lot for Lukashenka in terms of domestic and international legitimacy, which has been irreversibly called into question."
"The Belarusian authorities simply don't have any positive agenda," he concluded.