Virus besets Belarus prisons filled with president's critics

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In this handout photo, Belarusian riot police officers stand next to detained after an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results demonstrators inside a police station in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. More than 30,000 people have been detained for taking part in protests against the re-election of Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in the Aug. 9 presidential vote that was widely seen as rigged with fraud. The protests, some of which attracted up to 200,000 people, now have entered their fifth month. (Handout photo via AP)

KYIV – A wave of COVID-19 has engulfed prisons in Belarus that are packed with people in custody for demonstrating against the nation’s authoritarian president, and some of the protesters who contracted the coronavirus while incarcerated accuse authorities of neglecting or even encouraging infections.

Activists who spoke to The Associated Press after their release described massively overcrowded cells without proper ventilation or basic amenities and a lack of medical treatment.

Kastus Lisetsky, 35, a musician who received a 15-day sentence for attending a protest, said he was hospitalized with a high fever after eight days at a prison in eastern Belarus and diagnosed with double-sided pneumonia induced by COVID-19.

“Humid walls covered by parasites, the shocking lack of sanitary measures, shivering cold and a rusting bed —-that was what I got in prison in Mogilev instead of medical assistance,” Lisetsky told the AP in a telephone interview. “I had a fever and lost consciousness, and the guards had to call an ambulance.”

Lisetsky said that before he entered prison, he and three bandmates were held in a Minsk jail and had to sleep on the floor of a cell intended for only two people. All four have contracted the virus. Lisetsky must return to prison to serve the remaining seven days of his sentence after he’s discharged from the hospital.

He accused the government of allowing the virus to run wild among those jailed for political reasons.

“The guards say openly that they do it deliberately on orders,” Lisetsky said.

More than 30,000 people have been detained for taking part in protests against the August reelection of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in a vote that opposition activists and some election workers say was rigged to give Lukashenko a sixth term.