Friday, March 31, 2017
On March 25th and 26th more than 40 journalists and bloggers had been arrested, detained and harassed by authorities during the peaceful Freedom Day protests in Belarus. Filip Warwick was one of them. He was detained for six hours and deprived of any contact with the UK embassy. Now's he's determined to tell the story of the police brutality used against him and other detainees. We talked to him about his experience.

Also read: Journalists detained and harassed in Belarus

Independent photo- and radio journalist based in Kiev, Filip Warwick, says he came to Minsk as a tourist to enjoy the new visa-free regime for foreigners. He was walking in Minsk city centre when he came across the protests in the city centre, saw the riot police and decided to leave the area.

Riot police arrived

He was walking away from the protests, towards Victory square where several people were walking around. “There was no shouting, no chanting, no one was waving, holding or carrying flags but out of nowhere OMON (crowd and riot control, domestic counter terrorism - notorious riot police in Belarus) trucks arrived”, says Filip. He continues “It looked as if these riot squads were following orders and literally 'hunting people' without paying any attention to what they were saying.”

Filip Warwick in a OMON truck      Filip Warwick in a OMON truck
Filip Warwick in the OMON truck. Copyright: Filip Warwick

Punched and kicked into a cell 

In a matter of seconds two waves of OMON personnel flooded the square. Both times Filip was grabbed by men in full riot gear. “I shouted at them: tourist – foreigner – English, as I was not on assignment”, Filip tells us. The first time he was lucky enough to be let go. However, the second time four burly men in riot gear threw him in an OMON truck for detainees. The young OMON man inside literally punched and kicked him into a 1 metre x 1 metre cell.

At the 'police station'

After approximately a half an hour, the OMON truck arrived at what initially appeared to be a Police station. Around 20-30 people were standing outside with legs spread and arms up against the wall. Young people, pensioners, men, women. At the Police station no one was wearing any name tags. "When I asked where I was being detained a Senior lieutenant Ivan Ivanovich (the Belarus equivalent to John Smith, John Doe, Jens Jensen, Hans Hansen) said police station number 36 (I have since been told that no such station exists in Minsk, a fake name had been given)", says Filip. The name of the Police station was found out a couple days later.  

Tell the world

Filip: “As I was lead out from the OMON truck I again protested to the policeman behind me that I was a foreigner. The policeman applied his hand onto my neck, pressed my face onto the wall and kicked the inside of my knee.” As he laid on the ground for a few minutes, a young man standing close to him whispered: “Be quiet and do what they tell you. When you get released tell the world what is happening to us.”  

Denied access to UK embassy

Filip was quickly separated from the crowd and led onto the first floor of the police station. He handed over his passport so they could establish his identity and nationality– an EU citizen from UK. He requested many time to have the UK embassy notified of his presence, but was denied any access. During the 6 hours stay Filip requested the police at least 15 times to contact the UK embassy.

Brutality in detention

While in detention, Filip suffered a beating: “Two well-built men, twisted my arms behind my back, flipped me upside down, threw me onto the floor and stood on my ankles. With handcuffs applied they threw me against the wall, kicked my feet aside, and forcefully went through all my pockets. There was an air of sheer viciousness in how they went about this - I was already handcuffed.”

Handcuff marks of Filip Warwick.
Filip's handcuff marks. Copyright: Filip Warwick
They took mug shots and finger prints, telling him it was necessary for 'his own security and safety' and to 'ascertain that none of his details were on any of the criminal databases'. Even though Filip never gave nor was asked to give a statement, the police drew up two statements – 1st with 3 or 4 signatures, the second was not shown. The first statement was half translated and accused him of participating in the protest. The second was never translated nor shown to Filip. After six hours of detention, police took him back to his hostel. During his detention, no one knew of his whereabouts.

Support from Belarusians

Once back at his hostel, he was determined to tell the world what had happened and received a lot of support: “I have been getting tweets and messages from Belarusians people and their support has been very touching. Any message from fellow journalists, no matter how long or how short is invaluable and does provide an immense support of morale.

People deserve to know

When we asked Filip, what his most important point is, his answer was: “There are people out there who hope that us, journalists and media outlets in East and Western Europe, do get this message across. I cannot emphasize enough to explain what is really happening on the ground. What kind of hard dictatorship there is and what kind of tactics are being used on everyday people and the clampdown that takes places. This shouldn't be happing in the 21st century, let along in a European country with EU as neighbour.”