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What Is The Belarusian 'Pressure Chamber' Threat That Drove This Activist To Attempt Suicide?

Stsyapan Latypau is carried out of the courtroom after stabbing himself in the neck.
Stsyapan Latypau is carried out of the courtroom after stabbing himself in the neck.

Belarusian activist Stsyapan Latypau, jailed for more than six months on charges he denies, was locked behind bars in a Minsk courtroom on June 1 when he was given the chance to question a character witness who had been called to testify on his behalf.

Latypau addressed the man, his own father, and dropped the bombshell that he had been threatened in detention by the Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK).

"Father! After meeting, the GUBOP came to see me. He promised that if I did not admit my guilt, I would get the 'pressure chamber,' and criminal cases would be filed against my relatives and neighbors. I have already been in the pressure chamber -- for 51 days. So, prepare yourself."

Latypau, standing on a bench so guards could not reach him, then raised his hands and stabbed himself in the neck with a pen.

As he slumped onto the bench, guards fumbled to find the key to the courtroom cell while onlookers watched aghast. Eventually, the guards gained entry, and the bloody and heavily bandaged activist was carried to a waiting ambulance.

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That a prisoner in Belarus would rather kill himself than face the "pressure chamber" is not isolated to Latypau, who is accused of leading mass protests for trying to keep the authorities from removing a courtyard mural dedicated to the country's opposition movement.

According to rights watchdogs and former inmates, "pressure chambers" in Belarusian jails and prisons are literally torture chambers, and the threat of being sent there is enough to drive many to take drastic measures.

The chambers are often described as cells that contain hardened criminals who are working with the authorities.

Syarhey Ustsinau of Legal Initiative, a Belarusian NGO that helps people file cases with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), told Current Time on June 1 that detainees are sent to the chambers to have a confession beaten out of them by fellow inmates.

Human rights activist Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, who spent 6 1/2 years in prison on politically motivated charges, explained to RFE/RL's Belarus Service what it means to spend time in a "pressure chamber."

He said that every pretrial detention center in the country has one, in violation of international law, and that the authorities claim the chambers are needed for secret but official purposes.

Zhamchuzhny said the cells reserved to be used as a "pressure chamber" are usually about 4x6 meters and completely soundproofed with wall panels and double doors. In other cases, he said, normal cells are used and music is pumped in to cover detainees' screams.

Detainees are well aware of the chambers' existence, and the fear of being sent there is immense.

"I have often witnessed convicts or defendants open up [admit to crimes] just in front of the door of the pressure chamber," Zhamchuzhny said.

The rights activist said that others attempt to avoid being sent to the chambers by maiming themselves. This is because an open, bleeding, wound will require detainees to be hospitalized, sparing them torture for at least a little while.

Some detainees do try to pass the test of the "pressure chamber," but the outcome depends on the strength of their will and resilience to threats, Zhamchuzhny said.

Others have mentioned the strong influence such threats can have on those detained amid Belarus's brutal crackdown on mass anti-government demonstrations that erupted after strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka was named the winner of the country's disputed August 9 election.

Alesya Kakhanouskaya told RFE/RL in May that her son, Yauhen Kakhanouski, was beaten until he confessed to charges related to his participation in the protests.

"The testimony was beaten out of him," she said. "When they started threatening to put him in a 'pressure chamber'...he gave up and implicated himself."

In court, Kakhanouski pleaded not guilty, saying he had confessed under psychological and physical pressure.

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Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

"I was beaten by the police in the stomach, on the head, and on the legs, threatened to be sent to a 'pressure chamber' if I did not give the testimony as it should be," Kakhanouski told the court. "I signed [the confession] without reading, because I was afraid that they would beat me again."

In the end Kakhanouski was found guilty of participating in mass riots and sentenced to serve more than 3 1/2 years in prison.

Legal Initiative's Ustsinau said that the torture of demonstrators has not stopped since the protests against Lukashenka's electoral victory began.

He said that while most instances of torture took place in the first week of the mass demonstrations, from August 9 to 13, " they are still tortured today, they are tortured in prisons."

"There are many cases when in the courts people stated that they were beaten in order to obtain confessions," Ustinov said, adding that the courts simply do not pay attention to retractions.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Michael Scollon, based on interviews conducted by RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Current Time correspondent Volha Zharnasek.

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