Human rights groups say latest series of arrests and searches are part of ‘a total purge on civil society’
By: Andrew Roth
Belarusian human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski was among those arrested last week. Photograph: Dmitry Brushko/AP
The government of Belarus has launched a broad crackdown on civil society, launching raids and arrests on dozens of organisations in what has been described as a “black week” for the country’s NGOs.
The raids, which began last week, have touched all corners of civil society, from groups that campaign for political prisoners’ rights to those that crowdfund medical care and have helped medics in the fight against coronavirus.
The pressure follow mass arrests of opposition politicians and the closure and harassment of much of the country’s independent media, as longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko seeks to stamp out even apolitical efforts by Belarusians to self-organise.
“It’s a total purge of civil society,” said Marina Vorobei, the founder of Freeunion.online, an online platform for public unions and initiatives that helps with self-organisation and provides tools for secure networking and remote work. “NGOs have always been under pressure in Belarus … but these raids, this wave of arrests and seizures have never been seen by the non-profit sector.”
On Thursday Lukashenko vowed that the raids on NGOs would continue, calling them “bandits and foreign agents”. “A mopping-up operation is going on,” Lukashenko said. “Do you think it’s easy? There are thousands of our people working for them, and their brains are distorted and brainwashed with foreign money.”
Many expected the crackdown. In an interview last month, Valentin Stefanovich of the Viasna human rights centre, which provides financial and legal assistance to political prisoners, said they had been hit with raids and criminal cases and were expecting further pressure from the government.
“[Everyone] can be arrested in our country today,” Stefanovich said when asked if he was worried about being detained. “Part of our organisation has gone abroad. So they’ll never be able to shut down our activities completely. But as for me personally, it could happen at any moment, and I may not manage to get away. It’s just the way it is.”
Last Wednesday, police raided the offices and homes of at least 14 rights groups, media organisations, NGOs and charity groups, including 10 members of Viasna. Stefanovich was arrested, along with chairman Ales Bialiatski, Uladzimir Labkovich and his partner Nina Labkovich. The raids and arrests have continued, with more than 60 searches having taken place over the last 10 days.
“These raids and arbitrary arrests are just another instance of the crackdown against human rights defenders, civil society organisations and independent media that has been going on since the widely disputed presidential election in August 2020, when thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in mostly peaceful protests,” Viasna wrote in a statement.
The blow against NGOs has also extended to groups that focus exclusively on charity work, crowdfunding and organising medical aid for vulnerable communities that now face being cut off entirely.
Last week, police also raided the office and homes of senior members of the Imena NGO, an online platform that crowdfunds aid to help solve societal problems in Belarus. Its projects help fund homes for children with cancer and other terminally ill children, shelters for women and children who have been the victims of domestic violence, aid for the homeless, search parties, and support for medics battling Covid-19.
Katerina Sinyuk, the organisation’s founder, said that she could not discuss the investigation against the group because she had been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. In the meantime, the organisation’s bank accounts have been frozen, effectively paralysing their operations.
“We help people in difficult situations regardless of their political beliefs. We don’t ask what their views or orientations are. That’s the point of charity work,” said Sinyuk in an interview, adding that their projects have helped more than 50,000 people.
“Why have we fallen in this situation and what should we tell the people that we help now?” she continued. “We don’t know. We don’t want to abandon them because these are very vulnerable people.”
“For many we’re the only source of funding,” she said. “And of course all these projects are just in shock.”
One example was a mobile children’s hospice that provides care and medicine to dozens of children around the country.
“We need to help look after these children because besides us, there really is nobody permanently raising funding for these kinds of projects,” she said. “This situation could lead to thousands of people being left without care.”
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