A court was readying itself for another display of dubious justice, Belarusian style, when defendant and opposition activist Stepan Latypov rose from the dock, took off his mask, drew a sharp object – apparently a pen – and buried it deep into his throat.
In the moments beforehand, Mr Latypov had shouted to his father he had been warned that family and neighbours would be persecuted if he did not stand up in court and oblige with the customary guilty confession. He also claimed authorities had placed him in a punishment cell for the past seven weeks.
The judge quickly ordered the court in Minsk to be emptied but the effort to save Mr Latypov was chaotic – hampered by the fact he was locked in the caged dock typical of courts across the former Soviet Union.
Prison officers were initially unable to get access. While they went off looking for keys, Mr Latypov continued to hurt himself and lost consciousness in the process.
The activist is believed to have been put in an induced coma at the Semashko hospital in Minsk as doctors work to save his life.
Mr Latypov, a tree surgeon by profession, is the latest of hundreds to face trial for their role in organising opposition to autocrat Alexander Lukashenko.
He was arrested on 15 September while trying to protect a pro-opposition mural in Minsk.
Authorities later claimed they had discovered evidence Mr Latypov was distributing elaborate poisons to kill police officers. Mr Latypov, who owns his company, routinely traded poisonous chemicals as part of his work.
Since August last year, Belarus’s leader for 27 years has clamped down mercilessly on mass protests against his rule.
Many of those who continue to oppose him have been driven to desperate acts. Last week, 17-year-old Dmitry Stakhovsky committed suicide while under pressure from prosecutors. He became at least the ninth victim of Mr Lukashenko’s increasingly rearguard campaign to stay in power.
Meanwhile Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, both dragged from a hijacked Ryanair flight, are only the latest additions to a growing list of nearly 450 political prisoners. They have been charged with the same protest crimes as Mr Latypov.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the woman who almost certainly won the elections in August by a landslide, urges Mr Lukashenko to put an end to the repression.
“For already a year now there hasn’t been one day when the regime hasn’t broken an innocent life,” she said.
“Enough killing our children. Enough killing our loved ones. Enough killing your own nation.”
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