Freed from Belarus jails, protesters recount beatings

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FILE - In this file photo taken on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, police clash with a protester following presidential elections in Minsk, Belarus, that demonstrators have dismissed as rigged. Hundreds of people released from custody after a violent crackdown on protests in Belarus are sharing their accounts of harsh treatment at the hands of police. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

MINSK – They emerged dazed, shaken and in tears from the detention center in Minsk, to be met by waiting relatives. They displayed the black-and-blue bruises on their bodies, saying police had beaten them mercilessly. One teenager asked his weeping mother to look away.

Authorities in Belarus have freed at least 2,000 of about 7,000 people who had been pulled off the streets by riot police in the days following a disputed election that kept the country's iron-fisted leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, in power.

As they reunited with loved ones early Friday, they told of being struck repeatedly with truncheons, being threatened with gang rape and held amid harsh conditions and overcrowded cells. The accounts are fueling outrage at home and have European countries weighing new sanctions against officials in Belarus.

“They were beating me without mercy,” Alexei Shchitnikov told The Associated Press upon his release, his face disfigured by bruises.

The 47-year-old company director displayed a cross drawn on his back, an apparent marking by police that he should be given rough treatment.

“They were behaving like bandits and real beasts," he added. "The people will remember Lukashenko’s ‘victory’ for a long time.”

Student Sasha Vilks showed a reporter his legs and his back deeply bruised from truncheon blows, but told his weeping mother not to look.

“They called us terrorists and beat us severely on our legs and our backs,” the 19-year-old told the AP. “They would beat us first and then ask questions.”