Belarusian NGOs condemn government crackdown after “black week” of raids | Belarus

The government of Belarus has launched a broad crackdown on civil society, raiding and arresting dozens of organizations in what is known as a “black week” for the country’s NGOs.

The raids that began last week have touched every corner of civil society, from groups campaigning for the rights of political prisoners to those who have crowdfunded medical care and helped medical professionals fight the coronavirus.

The pressure follows the mass arrests of opposition politicians and the closure and harassment of much of the country’s independent media, as long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko tries to prevent even apolitical self-organization efforts by Belarusians.

“It’s a total cleansing of civil society,” said Marina Vorobei, founder of Freeunion.online, an online platform for public unions and initiatives that helps organize themselves and provides tools for safe networking and remote work. “NGOs have always been under pressure in Belarus … but the non-profit sector has never seen these raids, this wave of arrests and seizures.”

Many expected a crackdown. In an interview last month, Valentin Stefanovich of the Viasna Human Rights Center, which provides financial and legal assistance to political prisoners, said they had been hit by raids and criminal proceedings and expected further pressure from the government.

“[Everyone] can be arrested in our country today, ”said Stefanovich when asked if he was concerned about being arrested. “Part of our organization went abroad. So you will never be able to stop our activities entirely. But as for me personally, it can happen at any moment and I may not be able to get away with it. It’s just like that. “

Last Wednesday, police raided the offices and homes of at least 14 human rights groups, media organizations, NGOs and charities, including 10 members of Viasna. Stefanovich was arrested along with chairman Ales Bialiatski, Uladzimir Labkovich and his partner Nina Labkovich. The raids and arrests continued, with more than 60 searches carried out in the past 10 days.

“These raids and arbitrary arrests are just one more example of the crackdown on human rights defenders, civil society organizations and independent media that has been going on since the controversial presidential election in August 2020, when thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in largely peaceful times” Viasna wrote in a statement.

The blow against NGOs has also spread to groups that focus solely on charity work, crowdfunding, and organizing medical aid to vulnerable communities that are now being completely cut off.

Last week, police also searched the offices and homes of senior officials Imena NGO, an online platform that contributes to solving social problems in Belarus through crowdfunding. His projects help fund homes for children with cancer and other terminally ill children, shelters for women and children who have been victims of domestic violence, help the homeless, search teams and support medical professionals in the fight against Covid-19.

Katerina Sinyuk, the organization’s founder, said she could not discuss the investigation against the group because she had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Meanwhile, the organization’s bank accounts have been frozen, effectively paralyzing its operations.

“We help people in difficult situations regardless of their political attitude. We do not ask for their views or orientations. That’s the whole point of charity work, ”Sinyuk said in an interview, adding that her projects have helped more than 50,000 people.

“Why did we get into this situation and what should we tell people to help now?” She continued. “We do not know it. We don’t want to let them down, because they are very vulnerable people. “

“For many, we are the only source of funding,” she said. “And of course all these projects are in shock.”

One example was a mobile children’s hospice that cares for and provides medical care for dozens of children across the country.

“We have to help look after these children, because apart from us there is really no one who can permanently raise money for such projects,” she said. “This situation could result in thousands of people being left without care.”

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