MINSK -- When a small group of Belarusians took to the streets in late spring during an opposition solidarity rally, they got an early taste of the police violence that would follow the country's contentious August election.
For the experience, Uladzislau Yeustsihneyeu and Paval Pyaskou, will spend the next three years in a maximum-security prison after being found guilty on September 29 of using force while resisting police after the two men tried to prevent the detention of a participant in the authorized rally.
The fracas that broke out on June 19 in the small city of Maladzechna, 70 kilometers northwest of Minsk, was a precursor to the major crackdown against peaceful protests across the country after Alyaksandr Lukashenka was handed a new term in a deeply disputed presidential election less than two months later.
As Pyaskou's wife, Veranika, sees it, her 31-year-old husband was sent away for causing a few scratches, while police and other security forces have yet to face justice for the beatings, abuse, and alleged torture they have inflicted on peaceful demonstrators.
"It is strange that for a scratch on the knee they give you three years in prison," she told RFE/RL's Belarus Service following the sentencing. "They beat people up, rape them, and that's all good. But for a scratch, three years."
Yeustsihneyeu, 25, and Pyaskou, the father of a 6-year-old child, were both in the center of Maladzechna on June 19, where a "chain of solidarity" was to be held in support of the opposition to Lukashenka. It was the last day for potential presidential candidates to collect signatures needed to get on the August 9 ballot.
The two men, who did not know each other, were standing with several dozen rally participants when police began to violently detain a protester.
Yeustsihneyeu and Pyaskou were soon in the middle of it as a chaotic scene unfolded, with civilians jumping into the fray as police -- one brandishing a pistol -- fought them off and drove off with their detainee.
The entire episode was captured in a viral video that made waves in Belarus.
When the dust settled, both Yeustsihneyeu and Pyaskou were facing up to five years in prison for forcefully resisting police, two of whom the court would find had received scratches to their knees and elbows and had sustained damage to their uniforms.
Yustsihneyeu, who said he lived in the city center and was only observing what was going on, pleaded guilty for his role in the incident. He testified that he had run to the aid of a woman he thought was being hurt and had grabbed an officer by the arm.
"You know, when a woman screamed, I didn't know, I just ran there," he told prosecutors," according to the Belarusian rights group Vyasnya.
He would be sentenced to three years in prison.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Pyaskou acknowledged being at the scene, but refused to admit to harming a police officer. He testified that he heard shouts of, "Save me. Help!" and saw a riot policeman pushing a man amid a confusing scene.
"I tried to grab the riot policeman by the arm or shoulder," he told prosecutors, according to Vyasnya. "I then succeeded. I took him by his uniform and pulled."
Pyaskou said he didn't know why he acted, other than that "I wanted to save a man. It was necessary to stop the conflict." The officer in question, he said in court on September 18, was probably injured before he ran up to him.
Pyaskou, who had been under house arrest, was jailed following his testimony. He eventually received a sentence of three years and three months in prison.
Veranika Pyaskou said there was no way her husband could have injured the officer.
"The officer was already lying on the ground, and he had only a slightly scratched knee and torn trousers," she told RFE/RL. "But when Paval approached to pick him up and resolve the conflict, the officer fell down as a result of the actions of another man, who is now wanted."
Vyasnya, which has documented thousands of detentions and cases of police abuse against demonstrators in the seven weeks since Belarus's election, responded quickly to the sentencing.
On September 30, the rights watchdog issued a lengthy statement in which it said Yeustsihneyeu and Pyaskou had been denied a fair trial, that their sentences were disproportionate to the offense, and that their lives would be in danger in prison.
"We declare that Paval Pyaskou and Uladzislau Yeustsihneyeu are recognized as political prisoners," Vyasna wrote, demanding their immediate release from custody and a review of the court's decision.