A Ukrainian woman who dared to hold a topless protest outside the headquarters of Belarus's feared KGB has told The Independent how she and her colleagues were abducted by security agents and subjected to a terrifying ordeal that included beatings, mock executions and having a corrosive substance thrown in their hair.
Inna Shevchenko, an activist with the controversial Ukrainian feminist group Femen, described how masked men told her she would "breathe her final breath" as they cut up her hair with a knife and beat her for daring to protest inside the quasi-Stalinist state.
The 21-year-old had travelled to Belarus on 19 December with two friends to demonstrate against the ongoing crackdown by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. In a country where insulting the dignity of the president is a criminal offence, the trio stripped to their waists and put on fake moustaches to lampoon Mr Lukashenko, who is often described as Europe's last dictator.
Femen's modus operandi involves going topless to highlight feminist and human rights causes. The group had never travelled to Belarus, a country that languishes close to the bottom in international rankings for free speech.
Femen's demonstration in Minsk was one of a handful inside the country to mark the first anniversary of a mass protest that was brutally crushed by security forces.
The three women were briefly arrested after the 11am protest but were then released and expected to return home without incident. They travelled to a friend's flat before heading to the bus station but never made it back to Kiev.
Ukrainian media outlets soon began reporting their disappearance, prompting a diplomatic crisis between Kiev and Minsk. The women were eventually found in Yelsk, a wooded region close to the Ukrainian border.
Miss Shevchenko said she and her colleagues, Aleksandra Nemchinova and Oksana Shachko, were bundled into a silver mini-bus with blacked-out windows and driven for hours while being interrogated.
"They kept wanting to know who had invited us to Belarus and whether we received any money from Europe to pay for the protest," she said. "If we moved they would beat us."
The atmosphere became more menacing at sunrise when they were taken out of the bus and discovered that they had been driven far from Minsk.
"When we got out I saw a group of six or seven masked men," she recalled. "They blindfolded us and tied our hands. They said if we tried to look at them they would kill us. At one point one of the men asked if I liked breathing. I said 'yes' and he replied: 'Good, enjoy it while you can because you are about to breathe your final breath'."
The blindfolds were removed and the women were ordered to strip. One man repeatedly held a knife up to Miss Shevchenko's throat and cut bits of her hair off. "Then they threw a substance all over my head," she said. "It has dyed my hair green."
Miss Shevchenko said the entire ordeal was filmed by two men. At one point they were ordered to hold Nazi flags bearing a swastika and made to state that they would never return Belarus. The group was eventually released and told to walk back to Ukraine. They were found by villagers and local police who alerted the Ukrainian embassy.
Miss Shevchenko said the group had been prepared to be arrested for protesting in Minsk but did not anticipate such repressive measures. "I never thought the security forces would do something like that," she said. "I have never been so scared before in my life."
The Belarusian authorities have yet to make any public statement on the women's claims.