‘Humiliation is their hallmark’ Basketball star Yelena Leuchanka recalls 15 days spent in an infamous Belarusian jail
On September 30, one of Belarus’s most famous athletes was arrested at the Minsk Airport. Belarusian national team basketball player Yelena Leuchanka was supposed to go abroad for rehabilitation, but instead she was placed under arrest for 15 days for her active involvement in opposition demonstrations. Using photos from her Instagram account as evidence, the authorities accused her of taking part in illegal protests on August 23 and September 27. Leuchanka spent half a month at the Okrestina detention center in Minsk, a jail that became an infamous symbol of police brutality during the crackdown on protests that followed this summer’s presidential elections in Belarus. In an interview with Meduza, Yelena Leuchanka spoke about her arrest and the ongoing opposition movement in her home country.
Please note. This article is a summary of Yelena Leuchanka’s interview with Meduza correspondent Alexandra Sivtsova. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here.
Yelena Leuchanka arrived in Athens at the end of October. She was supposed to fly there in September for rehabilitation and training, but she never managed to leave the Minsk Airport.
“I didn’t have a chance to get through check-in. I was packing my bags in plastic and then there was a tap on my shoulder. I saw two police officers. They greeted me and said they have to arrest me for taking part in unauthorized rallies,” Leuchanka tells Meduza. “I was expecting this answer — this is currently the most popular thing that people are arrested for in Belarus.”
The officers took Leuchanka to Minsk’s Leninsky District Police Department — they didn’t allow her to call her lawyer. She spent her first day in detention in a two-person cell at the police department. “There was already a woman there. The cell itself [had] a two-tier bunk, there were no mattresses, but they provided us with sheets. They said that in all likelihood I’d stay [here] for a day, they’d write me a fine, and let me go,” Leuchanka recalls. “I only found out later that they tell everyone the same thing.”
“The trial was that same day,” she continues. “When I was laying [there] and waiting for the hearing to start, I suddenly heard a girl in another cell start to sing ‘Gray’ and ‘Kupalinka.’ I started to sing too and of course, burst into tears immediately. It was touching, I felt that even here, in prison, we were together. When we finished singing, everyone started to clap. I’ll never forget that.”
A Minsk court sentenced Leuchanka to 15 days in jail. The next day, she was taken to the Okrestina detention center and put in a four-person cell. “There were three of us in the cell. On the first night, we had mattresses, water, and the sewage system worked. But on October 2 everything started,” she explains. “After breakfast, a man came in and ordered [us] to roll up the mattresses. We rolled them up, we thought we had done something wrong somewhere. The rules of detention were never explained to us.”
The prison guard took the mattresses away and never brought them back: “There was an emergency button in the cell and we pressed it with all of our might. For a long time no one answered, then an evil guard came in. He opened the cell, grabbed the girl standing closest to him and took her out. Five minutes later she returned. He told her ‘Tell your old women to calm down, there won’t be any mattresses’.”
From then on, the conditions in the cell continued to get worse. They turned off the hot water and sewerage and threw in two more people. “We didn’t know how to sleep. We spread out newspapers and clothes. I, as the tallest, lay down on the bench, someone lay on the table, some in pairs — it was very cold, the radiator wouldn’t heat,” Leuchanka says. Meanwhile, the prison staff ignored their complaints.
This went on for the duration of Leuchanka’s time in jail. “They didn’t give us mattresses, they gave us hot water only on the second-last day. We asked to wash, but in 15 days we were never taken to the showers. There were only five walks in 15 days,” she recalls.
Most of the other women in Leuchanka’s cell were also serving time for participating in peaceful demonstrations. “One girl was from Viktor Babariko’s headquarters. She was a Belarusian who lives in Switzerland — she came because she couldn’t remain indifferent to everything that was happening,” Leuchanka explains.
One night, she and the other detainees were taken to another room to watch a pro-government film — the head of the detention center, Evgeny Shapetko, lectured them about the law. Leuchanka raised her hand to ask if he was aware of the conditions in their cell. “I am responsible for the conditions of your detention here. This is done so that you don’t want to come back here,” he said.
Both the police officers working at the prison and the other detainees recognized Yelena Leuchanka or at the very least knew her name. “It was always funny when the new girls were brought into the cell: ‘Are you Yelena Leuchanka? You’re Yelena Leuchanka? You’re Yelena? I never thought I’d meet you at Okrestina.’ Well, how do you respond to that?” she tells Meduza.
To pass the time, Leuchanka and her cellmates drew a checkerboard on a piece of paper. “We made pieces out of black and white bread and played. We tried to joke, sang songs, talked,” she recalls. “And now, when I’m going through social media I see messages from the guys who were nearby. They write: ‘We heard how you sang, we clapped for you.’ In another neighboring cell there was a girl who sang very beautifully every evening. There are such concerts in Okrestina.”
After serving her fifteen days, Yelena Leuchanka was arrested and tried once again for participating in protests. This time, she was given a fine and released. She suspects that it was all an attempt to “put on a show” to intimidate other athletes and individuals involved in the demonstrations; “to show that this can happen to anyone.”
“I can’t forgive the cruelty they showed toward my family. I only learned that night before that I had a new case and a new trial. Meaning they wouldn’t let me go. But my loved ones were not informed,” Leuchanka explains. “They made my mother and father come to Okrestino at six in the morning and wait for me. I’ll never forget the photo of how my mom was crying on my dad’s shoulder, it was all over the media.”
“I can see how cruel these people are. Humiliation is their hallmark. There’s a black mark associated with Okrestino, a lot of tears and a lot of pain,” she continues. “Everything that happened there in the days after the elections is insanity. Now there’s less physical bullying there, less beatings, but I can call everything that happens there psychological violence and moral pressure. They’re violating basic human rights.”
Asked if she’s afraid to talk about her experience in jail, Leuchanka replies that keeping quiet won’t help her case anyway. “If they want to persecute me, they’ll do it anyway. We aren’t protected in any way. Let’s be honest, I didn’t break any laws and didn’t commit any crimes,” she says. “In Belarus today this isn’t important, as if human life has no value. This is a legal default and it’s the only thing there is in Belarus now. Therefore, all we can do is talk [about] the truth and what we are experiencing.”
Leuchanka intends to return to Belarus eventually, but for now she’s focused on training. Though she keeps in touch with other Belarusian athletes every day, she’s been disappointed with their reaction to the crackdown. “Unfortunately, world-class athletes are silent and don’t comment on the situation at all. Sometimes they make posts against violence, but violence is a consequence. They don’t talk about the reason [for it].”
“It seems to me that [those who stay silent] are in prison and we, on the other hand, are free. But at the beginning I was outraged. I wanted athletes to speak — especially the eminent ones. But you can’t get hung up on this. It’s their choice, you need to move on,” she says, adding that 998 Belarusian athletes have in fact signed an open letter with demands to the authorities.
Nevertheless, Leuchanka remains hopeful about the future of Belarus, especially since recent events have galvanized so many people, herself included. “I was apolitical — in 2020 I voted for the first time in my life. Belarusians really woke up! Before, we were convinced that if we voted [against Lukashenko] nothing would change. It was part of the mentality. They bully you — you pretend it’s okay. The only thing you can do is swallow it. I’m not just talking about politics. This was the attitude towards everything,” she explains. “It seemed to me that we simply reached the limits of our patience. So this summer I started to express my opinion.”
“I believe that we will come to a Belarus, in which there will be freedom of speech, there will be no fear, and there will be no need to leave home questioning whether or not I’ll be able to return at all. You won’t need to know your lawyer’s number by heart. No one will be afraid of losing their job or place on the national team just for having an opinion,” Leuchanka concludes. “The worst thing is that they aren’t listening to us and all we want is simply dialogue. [We] have to hold out, this may be a long struggle.”