Twenty-year-old Nasta Polozhanka was detained by the Belarusian KGB for more than two months. One of the leaders of the youth movement Molodoi Front, she is accused of organising ‘mass disturbances’. If convicted, she faces up to 15 years in prison. The ‘mass disturbances’ in question were a largely peaceful protest against last year’s rigged presidential elections. As soon as polling stations closed on 19 December, the Election Commission announced yet another landslide victory for Aleskandr Lukashenko, ‘Europe’s last dictator’, who has been in power for 16 years.

People marched peacefully to Independence Square in Minsk, demanding democracy, freedom and civil rights, watched by hundreds of law enforcement agents. A group of about 20 masked men started smashing windows and banging on the gates of Government House. Riot police, presidential guards and KGB agents moved in, breaking up the crowd and surrounding groups of protesters. They beat everyone within reach with batons and stamped on anyone who fell to the ground. Protesters who tried to flee the square were chased by security forces who grabbed people at random, including bystanders, and loaded them into buses – up to 70 in a vehicle with a capacity of 30, witnesses told me.

At least 639 people (according to official data) but probably many more were arrested that night and in the following days: the police used mobile phone records to identify protesters. People were held for many hours inside police vehicles. Some were kept spread-eagled against the walls, with no access to food, water or toilets. Police rubber-stamped detention reports and beat anyone who refused to sign them.

The trials that followed were in the best tradition of ‘speedy and merciless’ Soviet justice. Most of the accused never saw either a lawyer or witnesses, and within 10 minutes were sentenced to 10 to 15 days of administrative detention. One of the witnesses told me that the language of the ruling was almost always identical. She was aware of one exception: a deaf and mute young man. In his case the judge eventually changed 'chanted anti-governmental slogans' to 'carried posters with anti-governmental slogans’.

I met with many of those who served time in administrative detention. They described freezing cells, some of which held twice the number of detainees they were intended for; lack of food and water; guards who often refused to take them out to go to the toilet and forced them to use a hole in the floor of the cell instead. Aspirin was the only available medication. And they had no opportunity to contact their families.

Those who were eventually released considered themselves lucky, though, compared with Nasta Polozhanka and another three dozen people – including presidential candidates, activists of opposition parties and journalists – who have been charged with criminal offences. Nasta and a few others have recently been released on their own recognisance but at least 32 remain in detention. There is almost no information about their fate. Relatives have not been able to see them and at best have received one or two heavily censored letters. Their lawyers have not been allowed to meet with the detainees in private: there are not enough rooms in the facility, the KGB says. A few lawyers who publicly raised concerns about their clients’ health or conditions in detention were quickly silenced when the Justice Ministry threatened to have them disbarred.

Over the last month, security forces have conducted hundreds of abusive searches in the offices of opposition parties, human rights groups and independent media outlets, as well as at peoples’ homes. They have not found much, but confiscated all the computers they could get their hands on: ‘An interesting way to restock our law-enforcement agencies with new computers,’ an activist told me, laughing. Everyone I spoke to agreed that such a massive crackdown on civil society was unprecedented. Before the election, in the hope of gaining European support, Lukashenko softened his grip over the media, political opposition and non-governmental organisations. He even allowed opposition candidates to campaign against him on state television. But the short thaw ended quickly and brutally on election night.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that the elections were marred by egregious violations; the European Parliament and the Council of Europe issued resolutions condemning the crackdown; the Unites States and the European Union boycotted Lukashenko’s inauguration. Eventually the EU imposed sanctions, including a visa ban for more than 150 Belarusian officials, including President Lukashenko, the defence minister, the head of the secret police, and many others implicated in the repression. Russia congratulated Lukashenko on his victory and called the EU sanctions ‘counterproductive’, but condemned the wave of arrests and supported the Council of Europe’s resolution calling for the release of the detainees.

More important, the people of Belarus, especially the young, are demanding change. Nineteen-year-old Irina I. came to the protest with other Belarusian Christian Democrats. She took a loud hailer from a man who’d been beaten by the police and was covered in blood: his friends were trying to get him to hospital. She used the loud hailer to tell protesters not to run, ‘because we’d done nothing wrong,’ she said. She was arrested, beaten and sentenced to 12 days in detention. She went on hunger strike, asked for a pen and paper, a phone call to her family, and a meeting with a lawyer. The authorities ignored her. ‘I could have continued with the strike, several of my cellmates did,’ Irina said. ‘But then we got newspapers, and I realised just how massive the crackdown was, with most of the opposition leaders, and hundreds of others, behind bars. I knew then I would need all my strength to get to work as soon as I got out.’

It was hard to believe I was talking to someone who’d only just left school. But Irina is a seasoned activist: last spring she ran in local elections in her home town, and was promptly kicked out of university. Now the police keep summoning her for questioning. She told me she carries a copy of the criminal procedure code to every interrogation. ‘It’s much better than a lawyer. They can threaten and disbar a lawyer but it’s much harder to silence their own law.’

For other young people, the December protest was their first act of resistance. Eighteen-year-old Svetlana S. told her parents she was going to a movie. After her arrest, she was beaten, humiliated and threatened by the police. ‘They slapped me, hit my head against the wall, and twisted my scarf around my neck so that I started suffocating. They said they would rape me if I didn’t answer their questions. I never expected to end up in detention. But I have no regrets. It was just one of these moments in life when you have to make a choice, and I made it. And now I will not give up – after all, what can they do to me?’

Not all the protesters were young, however. Aleksandr Klaskovskiy became famous when video reports from Independence Square showed him in police uniform, his head covered in blood, confronting the riot officers. He quit his job with the local police a few years ago, his wife, Natalya, told me – the uniform was from those days – and started his own business. Things were going well. They have three children, a new apartment, a nice car. When I asked Natalya why he’d gone to the protest, she seemed a little perplexed by the question. Like the other relatives of detainees that I spoke to, she expressed no regrets. I never heard one of them say: ‘I wish he had stayed at home that day.’

Support for the protesters goes much wider than their immediate families. Released detainees told me they had received parcels from complete strangers while in detention: warm clothes, chocolates, books. ‘I wish I had a library like that at home,’ Svetlana said, laughing. ‘The only problem was that people mostly sent us books like The Gulag Archipelago; we ended up with three copies of it in our cell. I am very grateful for the support we got. But I would like to pass on a message. Next time I am detained, please don’t send us too many serious books. It would be great to get Bridget Jones’s Diary instead.’