"Who helps with care packages?" Details of the mass crackdown by security forces on relatives of political prisoners Updated
Throughout Belarus, on January 23, KGB officers conducted mass searches, interrogations, and detentions of relatives and loved ones of political prisoners, as well as former political prisoners who had recently left prison and remained in the country. According to Viasna, as of February 22, at least 275 people have been persecuted. After the searches, people were taken away for interrogation, and then released with a non-disclosure agreement. But not all were released; human rights activists are investigating the detentions. According to preliminary information, the reason for the interest from the KGB was the assistance to the families of political prisoners from the initiative INeedHelpBY, which the authorities recently recognized as an "extremist formation". Viasna reports what is now known about the persecution of relatives of political prisoners, and human rights activist Pavel Sapelka comments on the KGB crackdown and recalls important security measures that will help avoid imprisonment.
What is known about searches and detentions?
In the morning of January 23, KGB officers began to search the relatives of political prisoners. The security forces came to their houses and sometimes workplaces. After the searches, the security forces took them away for interrogation, and in some cases, the whole family.
According to Viasna, the security forces came to more than 275 people, including former political prisoners. Many of them are already free on their own recognizance, having signed a non-disclosure agreement, but some still remain behind bars, and their procedural status is unknown.
After searches and interrogations, the security forces took away the phones of some detainees for a check, and someone received their phone back with a Telegram bot Magnet installed by the police, which allows the security forces to remotely monitor people's accounts.
Administrative reports were drawn up against those who had "extremist reposts and subscriptions," or those who "shouted and waved their hands during a conversation with the police." For example, the wife of political prisoner and ex-presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich, Maryna Adamovich, was sentenced to 15 days for "petty hooliganism" (Article 19.1 of the Administrative Code).
Also, after the detention, former political prisoner Aliaksei Ramanau, who had previously been diagnosed with cancer, was not released. He was taken for questioning by the KGB on suspicion of participating in an "extremist formation." As it became know to Svaboda, after hours of interrogation in the Homieĺ KGB department, Aliaksei was taken to a temporary detention center. In the evening of that day, he was driven to his house so that his relatives would give him some necessary things and medicines.
Liudmila Anashkevich from Polack was arrested for 15 days for an "extremist" link in private correspondence. The KGB officers took her mobile phone and letters from a political prisoner and leader of the independent trade union Naftan Volha Brytsikava. The basis for drawing up the report was private correspondence with her friend who is now in Poland: the woman sent him a link to an article from a resource that was recognized as "extremist".
How are the INeedHelpBY initiative and deliveries from Evroopt and Gippo stores related to this
There is no exact information yet on what is the reason for such attention to the relatives of political prisoners. However, it is known that the search warrants contained articles for "financing extremist activities" (Articles 361-2 of the Criminal Code) and "participation in extremist formation" (Articles 361-1 of the Criminal Code).
In addition, on January 23, it became known that the INeedHelpBY project, which provided food assistance to the repressed, was recognized as an "extremist formation". The corresponding decision was made on January 16 by the KGB, but it was published only on the day of the KGB crackdown. The initiative's website indicates that since 2020, they have already provided support in the amount of 1,551,400 dollars, and provided assistance more than 15,000 times.
To help, the initiative used popular delivery services from Gippo and Evroopt stores. You can order online delivery from these stores and pay either on the website or upon receipt of groceries.
According to human rights activists, it was the help from INeedHelpBY that in many cases interested the security forces. Among other things, the security forces asked "who helps with the care packages and who pays for the food transfers to prisoners." The officers looked for applications of foreign banks on the phones, and also demanded explanations about money transfers to Belarusian cards from abroad. It is reported that the security forces allegedly view payments in the applications of Lithuanian and Polish banks and collect information about the amounts of payments.
We emphasize that receiving grocery deliveries through online services, even if the payment was made with foreign cards, is not an offense. Thousands of Belarusians use this method both inside the country and abroad, and there is no ban on using foreign cards on the service's website.
However, the recognition of the initiative as an "extremist formation" has serious consequences for those who have applied for their help. Now, any cooperation with INeedHelpBY may lead to criminal liability under Articles 361-1 (creation and management of an extremist formation) and Articles 361-4 (promotion of extremist activities) of the Criminal Code. Thus, the authorities are trying to destroy the solidarity of Belarusians and leave Belarusians alone with persecution. But human rights activists call on to continue to support each other in such difficult times in any way.
"This is an nonsensical reaction to the legitimate activities of civic initiatives"
Viasna human rights defender Pavel Sapelka commented on the attack by security forces on relatives and loved ones of political prisoners, and also recalled security measures that will help avoid imprisonment:
"The attack on people and initiatives that do not leave Belarusians without help in difficult conditions has several goals, the main of which is to avenge solidarity, destroy the support structure, and intimidate people involved in this activity.
All the attacks of the regime have nothing to do with the protection of law and order, this is a nonsensical reaction to the legitimate activities of civic initiatives, but the authorities are no longer even trying to hide this. Charitable assistance to people in difficult situations, by definition, cannot pose a danger to the constitutional order and functioning of the state and its institutions — unless, of course, it is a totalitarian regime that has lost the support of the people and usurped power by force, and exists only thanks to repression.
The authorities have used and will continue to use any weaknesses and shortcomings of mutual assistance initiatives: a powerful repressive machinery is helping them to do this. It is difficult to find the strength to resist such a regime and its insane efforts, but all responsible initiatives and organizations, in particular we at Viasna, are doing everything to minimize the risks for courageous people who help us and each other to resist tyranny.
We advise you to familiarize yourself with the rules of digital security and strictly observe them; carefully hide sensitive information from others; not to have formal grounds for administrative and criminal prosecution on your digital devices: videos, photos, subscriptions, reposts of materials from resources prohibited by the authorities. After all, it is the failure to comply with these recommendations that most often causes imprisonment.
Contact us and report the facts of human rights violations: this will help not to leave the crimes of the regime unnoticed and unpunished. If you are safe, support initiatives to help political prisoners and their families, create and develop a decentralized network of solidarity actions."