KYIV – While visiting her son in a Belarusian prison, Natallia Makavetskaya saw deep scars on his wrists left by tight handcuffs. She also noticed the yellow tag sewn onto his clothes.
The tags mark those jailed for joining demonstrations against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and single them out for "particularly harsh prison conditions,” Makavetskaya told The Associated Press.
“They have decided that my son is prone to extremism and treated him accordingly,” she said in a telephone interview.
Her son, Uladzislau Makavetsky, was convicted in December of threatening a police officer with a truncheon during a clash between protesters and police in his hometown of Vitebsk, and was sentenced to two years in prison. He denied the charges, saying he was only trying to protect an elderly man who had been beaten by police, and he just tossed away a truncheon dropped by one of the officers.
Makavetsky told his mother that authorities at prison colony No. 22, located near Brest on the border with Poland, denied him any personal items or visitors for a time. During daily lineups, he was ordered to stand apart from other prisoners and say: “I'm prone to extremism.” Prisoners with yellow tags also get extensive regular searches.
The 28-year-old woodcarver was one of more than 35,000 people arrested in Belarus in a harsh crackdown on protests that followed Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely seen as rigged. Thousands were severely beaten by police.
The wide-ranging repression was spotlighted again on May 23, when a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk where authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist who was aboard. He has been shown in several videos on state TV since his arrest, most recently Thursday night, tearfully repenting for his activities and praising Lukashenko in remarks that the opposition said were clearly made under duress.
Outraged European Union authorities denounced the flight's diversion as air piracy and imposed more sanctions on the country.
Belarus human rights activists say authorities have toughened prison conditions in recent months for those who took part in protests. Many of them have been marked with the yellow tags, a practice denounced by human rights activists.
“The tags' yellow color draws direct associations with yellow Stars of David for Jews in Nazi Germany, and it's hard to understand why the Belarusian authorities did it,” said Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna human rights center. “In any case, these dangerous experiments lead to stigmatization of political prisoners by prison authorities and other inmates.”
Viasna says that at least 460 political prisoners are being held in Belarusian penitentiaries on criminal charges related to protests that carry terms from six months to several years.
The Belarusian authorities have ignored criticism of harsh conditions for jailed protesters. Lukashenko has repeatedly cast protesters as pawns in what he described as efforts by Western spy agencies to destabilize Belarus and forcefully change the government.
Besides Makavetskaya, three other women told the AP that their sons had yellow tags sewn on their clothes when they visited them in April and May.
One of them, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Valiantsina, fearing reprisals from authorities, said her son told her he is kept in handcuffs around the clock. The IT specialist from Minsk is serving his four-year sentence in prison colony No. 1 in the city of Novopolotsk.
“My son whispered to me that he was being held for days in a stretched position in a punishment cell, his legs stretched far apart to cause intense pain without any trace left,” she told AP.
Another prisoner who was given a yellow tag was Katsiaryna Barysevich, a journalist of the Tut.by independent news portal who was released last month after serving six months on charges of revealing personal data in her report about a protester’s death.
“I wouldn’t say that I have been broken,” Barysevich told reporters after her release. “I have learned to look calmly at mad things.”
Liubou Kaspiarovich, another Tut.by journalist who spent 15 days in jail last month for covering a trial related to protests, said she and 14 others in her two-bed cell had to sleep on the concrete floor that was still wet with chlorine bleach.
“They were waking us up several times during the night, ordering us to report the criminal law articles we were charged with, and each morning they poured a bucketful of chlorine on the floor," Kaspiarovich told the AP. "And they put a homeless woman who had lice in our cell."
Vitold Ashurok, who was among the first to draw attention to harsh conditions and yellow tags for political prisoners, died inside a prison in Shklov, where he was serving a five-year sentence for participating in protests. The authorities said Ashurok, 50, died of a heart attack May 21, although his death certificate didn't list a cause of death.
When relatives were given his body, which bore bruises and a bandage on his head, authorities also released a video in which a man purported to be Ashurok was seen grasping his head and collapsing before officers enter. The opposition said the video was doctored.
Viasna's Stefanovich questioned the official version of Ashurok's death.
“An absolutely healthy person suddenly dies in custody ... and they don't name the cause of death, and (then) hand over his body with bandages,” he said. “What are people supposed to think?”
His death brought an outpouring of anger.
“He died in the struggle for freedom and a brighter future for Belarus,” U.S. Ambassador Julie Fisher said on Twitter, adding that Ashurok's "wrongful imprisonment and senseless death demand accountability.”
Another prisoner tried to slit his throat with a pen in court Tuesday after authorities threatened his family with criminal charges. Stsiapan Latypau, 41, was hospitalized and put in a medically induced coma afterward.
German Foreign Ministry expressed shock and anger over the incident. Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said it "symbolizes the hopelessness that Lukashenko brings upon his citizens with his repression and also the brutal violence that is obviously being used there.”
Human rights activists and relatives of those being held have urged the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Belarusian prisons to inspect conditions for political prisoners.
"They are cranking up repressions and there is no way to find out the truth about what's going on behind the walls of the Belarusian prisons that have inherited the worst Soviet traditions," said Viasna's Stefanovich.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.
Follow all AP stories about developments in Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/belarus