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Fighting for the truth Meet the former Belarusian security officers investigating the crimes of the Lukashenko regime

Source: Meduza
Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

In the summer and fall of 2020 the Belarusian security forces became a collective symbol of brutality as they arrested, beat up, and tortured thousands of protesters for opposing President Alexander Lukashenko. At the same time, a number of them refused to fulfill these orders and decided to quit their jobs. Since then, Belarus’s former law enforcement officers have gravitated towards By_Pol — an organization made up of ex-security officials who are not only investigating their colleagues’ crimes, but also encouraging others to defect to the opposition. Meduza meets this new team of investigators working to “expose crimes against the Belarusian people.”

This article was originally published in Russian on January 13, 2021.

The mass protests in Belarus began immediately after the presidential elections on August 9. Andrey Ostapovich — an investigator from Minsk with five years experience working for the Belarusian Investigative Committee — quit his job within a week. In his outgoing report, he explained that he couldn’t “fulfill criminal orders” and “participate in covering up the crimes” committed by security officials — at that point, thousands of protesters had been arrested across Belarus, many of whom were beaten and tortured in custody.

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Even before his resignation, Andrey had taken part in opposition protests on more than one occasion. On August 10 and 12, he had to flee from his own colleagues in law enforcement in order to avoid arrest. On other days, he attended rallies for work — going on so-called political trips to gather information for reports on possible crimes committed at the demonstrations. For example, Andrey’s work included a report about the arrest of a 16-year-old boy during the protests: riot police (OMON) officers put a truncheon in his mouth and tried to force him to sing the Belarusian national anthem — when he refused, they beat him up. 

Andrey Ostapovich told Meduza that he decided to quit his job because his bosses weren’t giving him leeway to investigate these kinds of cases. After he announced his resignation, he wrote an outgoing report describing the “banditry” of the security forces, attended one more protest rally, and then decided to leave Belarus.

Andrey Ostapovich

Returning home, I reread the report and I thought that the text was too emotional and ought to be rewritten as a regular letter of resignation. Then I went to the window and I saw the girls were still standing at the rally with flowers. I saw that people were fighting, holding on, and I didn’t want to stand on the sidelines; I decided I would leave everything as it is. I decided I would go away for a week to look at the situation: what would happen, how the leadership would react to my report, and what I should do next. 

The investigator went to visit friends in Moscow. And the next day, he found out that his bosses, having received his report, had started looking for him. Andrey became worried that he might be arrested in Russia and handed over to the Belarusian special services. He contacted the Latvian Embassy and asked for political asylum. The diplomats there told him that it would be better to negotiate with the Latvian border guards at the land border with Russia (located about nine hours from Moscow). In the end, Andrey wasn’t given permission to cross: because of the coronavirus pandemic, he wasn’t allowed to leave Russia.

He then went to Pskov — the location of the Latvian Consulate closest to the border. Officials there told him they needed three days to make a decision. Meanwhile, on August 20, state investigators in Belarus opened a criminal case against him on charges of “inaction by a government official.” Two days later, Andrey was detained at a Pskov hotel and written up for minor hooliganism — supposedly for swearing in a public place.

“This is done when they need to hold a person, [it’s] the standard approach. That said, they arrested me in a hotel room, which isn’t a public place, and there wasn’t any swearing there in general,” he explains.

Andrey was taken from the hotel to the police department, where they told him that the FSB was “interested” in him. He spent about a day in police custody — then he was taken out through an emergency exit, where six to eight people in masks were waiting for him. They took all of his things, put a ski mask and handcuffs attached to weights on him, and bundled him into a minibus.

“At times the thought flashed through my head that I was being taken to be thrown into some river. I didn’t understand what was happening. Weights, in the 21st century? Before I had only seen this in movies. The psychological pressure was colossal. The security officers demanded my phone password, supposedly to turn off the geolocation, but I didn’t say a word during the entire four hours on the road. I tried to figure out where we were going by sound. When I heard a number of trucks passing by one after another, I realized that we were going towards the border,” Andrey recalls.

He was taken out of the car on Belarusian territory, in the Vitebsk region. They also issued a notice saying that he was being deported from Russia for “the illegal detention of Russian citizens.” Andrey was told that the citizens in question were the alleged Wagner group mercenaries who were arrested in Belarus shortly before the 2020 presidential elections. As an investigator in Minsk, he had nothing to do with the arrests — he himself believes that this was just a formal reason for sending him back to Belarus.

A few minutes later, another bus pulled up. Andrey noticed men inside the vehicle who looked like law enforcement officers; presumably they were from the Belarusian KGB. He didn’t wait around to find out — instead, Andrey disappeared into the forest.

“There was a moment when I was hiding and the people who were running after me passed by literally a few meters away. I was lying in the grass, I was wearing a light-colored t-shirt, and at that moment it seemed like it was literally glowing. I lay there for about an hour, it constantly seemed like they were continuing to follow me. At one point, I gathered my strength and decided to keep running,” Andrey recalls.

He spent about two weeks on the run. Sometimes, he says, he had to walk more than 70 kilometers in a day and drink water from streams. Along the way, he encountered wild animals on more than one occasion: “As a child, I was told stories about how if you encounter a wild boar in the woods, you can be seriously injured. I remembered this when I saw their tracks on the ground. A moment later a wild boar ran out of the bushes and fortunately I managed to shine a light in its eyes and it ran away.”

Andrey managed to run all the way to the border with “one of the European Union countries” (he didn’t disclose which one). He swam across the border and kept running when he got to the other side. When he reached civilization, he used the last 480 euros on his card to buy a cellphone and a SIM card, and to pay for several nights in a hotel.

‘Exposing crimes against the Belarusian people’ 

Today, Andrey Ostapovich is in Poland — he’s applying for political asylum and living in Warsaw, where he founded the project By_Pol. The former investigator decided to help other Belarusian security officials who, like him, have been persecuted because of their political views. Mikita Mikado, a Belarusian IT CEO who lives in the United States, tried to kickstart a similar initiative back in August — he offered financial assistance to all security officers who refuse to carry out orders to commit violence against protesters. However, he suspended the project immediately after several employees from his company, PandaDoc, were arrested in Minsk.

Officially, By_Pol was founded on October 20, 2020, when Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanousaya) — who many believe only lost the 2020 presidential vote due to electoral fraud — came to Warsaw and met with several Belarusian security officers who had resigned in protest against Lukashenko’s policies. Andrey Ostapovich was at the meeting.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya during a meeting with former Belarusian security officers in Warsaw
Andrey Ostapovich’s personal archive

“After the meeting with Tikhanovskaya, more and more people reached out to us. When a sufficiently strong team had formed, it became clear that our activities couldn’t be limited to just helping officials. We started to conduct investigations and operational work related to exposing crimes against the Belarusian people,” Andrey explains.

The equipment By_Pol needed to carry out its work was purchased with the help of funds from the Belarusian diaspora and the solidarity fund “BySol,” which raises money for Belarusians who have been injured or have lost their jobs amid the opposition protests. Andrey maintains that the project is still funded with the help of the diaspora and with participants’ own money, though he wouldn’t disclose its total budget.

By_Pol has several offices in Poland and other EU countries, where former Belarusian police officials, investigators, and state prosecutors, as well as volunteers, seek out new supporters and process incoming information. Any member of the Belarusian security forces can contact By_Pol through their Telegram channel. The organization will then provide them with assistance. Among other things, it even helps people leave the country through Russia and get to Ukraine or countries in the European Union. In total, By_Pol has helped more than 30 former security officials leave Belarus.

The project’s staff members maintain special lists of security officers who have applied for help, entering them into a special “book” of officers who “are fighting for the truth.” So far, this book includes more than 500 people who, in turn, keep By_Pol informed about what the Belarusian authorities are doing.

By_Pol admits that they manage to obtain other “unique information” by hacking into government databases with the help of IT specialists. According to Andrey, these databases aren’t especially difficult to hack. By_Pol also works in conjunction with other community projects that have popped up during the wave of protests. For example, project 23.34, where the protesters themselves recount their own detentions, and the Unified Crime Registration Book (EKRP), where anyone can upload information about a crime committed by the security forces. 

All of this information helps identify offenders currently employed by the Belarusian security agencies, Andrey explains. “We have a certain amount of information ourselves, plus we have the skills and abilities to analyze information from open sources. In addition, officers working on the ground pass information to us. We analyze it all, make comparisons, establish a chain of events, and look for the guilty ones,” he tells Meduza. 

The list of security officers who, according to the project’s members, are guilty of crimes against protesters, is handed over to EU representatives through the mediation of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Andrey explained to Meduza that this could lead to personal sanctions against individual security officials, as well as the international isolation of the Belarusian security structures — for example, sanctions against legal entities could create problems with their supply of special equipment. The stun grenades used to disperse demonstrators in Minsk, for example, were produced in the Czech Republic.

“Now we understand that if you disrupt the security forces’ agenda, then the rest of the apparatus will quickly fall apart. Lukashenko himself admitted during his meeting with the OMON [riot police] officers that until the last one of them tells him to leave, he’s not leaving,” underscored By_Pol’s public relations manager, Evgeny Medvedev, in conversation with Meduza. 

‘Italian strikes’

By_Pol claims to have recorded more than 1,000 crimes committed by Belarusian security officers. On December 20, the group released a list of 28 materials evidencing electoral fraud, torture, and beatings. They also made public a list of 89 people whose phones have been tapped by the Belarusian Interior Ministry. 

Evgeny Medvedev anticipates that the project will produce more and more materials like these ones. The number of security officials working with them is also set to grow. According to Medvedev, many Belarusian law enforcement agencies are now seeing officers sabotaging their work or switching to “Italian strikes” — meaning that they’re doing their jobs strictly by the book. This severely restricts the work of their departments and disrupts the government’s work, as well. 

Evgeny Medvedev

What’s happening today is the gradual degradation and disintegration of the structures of power. Our task is to make this happen quickly and as painfully as possible for the security officials on the inside, but at the same time painlessly for society.

By_Pol emphasizes that department heads are the ones mainly responsible for the brutality of the security forces, and not the rank-and-file officers who are following orders. At the same time, there are also rather successful officials who have defected to their side.

Igor Loban — a former special investigator for the Grodno regional branch of the Belarusian Investigative Committee — used to be a Major of Justice. He was one of the first to join By_Pol; immediately after he was instructed to open criminal cases against protesters in early August. After receiving this order, Loban simply hung up the phone and left the service. He even posted an appeal on Instagram addressed to the Interior Minister, Yury Karayev (who was later fired), where he criticized the actions of the security forces. 

“Ten minutes after my appeal the bosses started calling me. They said that they were already on their way to get me. I hid for several days, but my comrades from the KGB said that they were going to start a criminal case against me. Then I moved to Poland,” Loban told Meduza. 

In Warsaw, Loban met with Andrey Ostapovich and joined his project. Now, the former special investigator receives audio and video materials leaked by current Belarusian security officers. For example, on By_Pol’s YouTube channel, you can watch videos from the chest cameras of Belarusian law enforcement officers, which show how detainees were treated while inside police vans and reveal what happened inside police stations. 

A video posted to the channel on December 18, 2020, shows the mistreatment of detainees at a Minsk police department on August 12. In the video, a number of people (among them minors and women) can be seen in the department’s gym — most of them are kneeling along the wall with their faces to the floor and their hands tied behind their backs. You can hear the cries of people who are being beaten. 

This video contains footage that some viewers may find disturbing.

By_Pol

According to Loban, the security officials who support such actions are a minority — mainly officers from the riot police (OMON) and other similar structures. According to his estimates, in some divisions about 70 percent of the officers have already contacted By_Pol. All communication with them takes place via secure messaging platforms. 

Igor Loban

In the era of information technology we have ways to conspire and we aren’t worried that our sources could be revealed. For a leak to occur, the authorities would have to reach an agreement with [Telegram founder] Pavel Durov, which, in our opinion, is just unrealistic. 

In conversation with Meduza, Andrey Ostapovich also admitted that the Belarusian security officials are actively trying to identify officers who are working with his project — but they haven’t succeeded thus far.

Another By_Pol member, Matvey Kupreychik (a former senior operative from the Minsk Executive Committee’s Main Department of Internal Affairs), underscored that even high-level security officers aren’t afraid to get involved with the project. As a result, on December 28, 2020, By_Pol managed to release an alleged audio recording of former Interior Minister Yury Karayev discussing the political dimension of the case against Svetlana Tikhanovksaya’s husband, Sergey Tikhanovsky (Siarhei Tsikhanouski). Among other things, the voice on the recording (which presumably belongs to Karayev) calls Tikhanovsky a “destroyer of the state” and a “creature.” 

‘They broke into my apartment and put a gun to my head’

Vladimir Zhigar is a former police lieutenant who worked as a criminal investigator in the Belarusian town of Mazyr. He left law enforcement even before the 2020 presidential elections — he took part in opposition protests and on several occasions was among the people providing security for opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. 

On August 10, police officials came to Zhigar’s home and arrested him. “They broke into my apartment and put a gun to my head and to the heads of my comrades who were with me at the time. After that, they took us away and handed us over to the OMON,” Vladimir told Meduza. Regardless of the fact that the arrest took place inside of his own apartment, the police protocol said that Vladimir was walking along Pobediteley Avenue in downtown Minsk and shouting “anti-government slogans,” he added.

Today, Vladimir, like many other former security officers from Belarus, is living in Poland and is involved in developing By_Pol. Among other things, he’s outlining prospective reforms to the Belarusian Interior Ministry — a project he’s working on in conjunction with the organization National Anti-Crisis Management (NAM), another representative body for the Belarusian opposition. The NAM is led by Belarus’s former culture minister Pavel Latushka, who directed the Yanka Kupala National Theater in Minsk until August 2020, when he was fired after the start of the opposition protests. 

Svetlana Khilko is overseeing the NAM’s proposed reforms to the Interior Ministry — she herself graduated from the Ministry of the Interior Academy of Belarus and worked in law enforcement for five years. She resigned from the Investigative Committee in 2012 with the rank of captain, moved to the United States, and began working in the IT sector. When the opposition protests broke out last summer, she wanted to help the demonstrators and decided to join the NAM.

The idea to draft reform process came to her in the fall of 2020. According to Khilko, by that point it was already clear that without such reforms the Interior Ministry simply couldn’t continue to exist, since it had been turned into a system for carrying out political investigations and “suppressing the will” of the Belarusian population. 

Khilko explained to Meduza that there’s a team of about 20 people involved in working on the reform (plus a number of outside consultants) and its principles have already been formulated. The most important one being that the Interior Ministry must return to protecting the rights of ordinary citizens and establish communication with the people. According to the NAM, this can be facilitated, among other things, by changing the name of the police force from the militsiya to the politsiya (to underscore that their job is to protect the population, not persecute them).

Decentralizing the ministry is another key reform, aimed at ensuring that the police force in any given city won’t just be under the direct control of the Interior Minister. 

Svetlana Khilko

Currently, law enforcement officers lack a sense of responsibility. They say that they received orders from above, but few of them understand that everyone is responsible for making decisions. There have already been examples in Belarus where police officers stopped dispersing peaceful demonstrators. The people on the ground have to decide for themselves how they will live. 

As the opposition makes plans to overhaul Belarus’s Interior Ministry, their sources tell them that the law enforcement authorities are already facing a massive personnel drain. On January 6, By_Pol published a copy of the Interior Ministry’s internal analytical review on staffing for the first nine months of 2020. According to this classified document, 2,091 employees quit the department during this period; more than half of these resignations, 1,074, took place during the third quarter after the opposition protests began. According to By_Pol, even more people resigned at the beginning of 2021 — many security officers had contracts that expired on December 31, 2020, and a significant number refused to renew these agreements (By_pol plans to release the exact number at a later date).

However, By_Pol also says that the Belarusian authorities are now actively preparing for the onset of the spring months and the continuation of mass protests, by purchasing more weapons, body armor, and special equipment. But By_Pol member Matvey Kupreychik told Meduza that this may not do them any good in the face of personnel shortages.

“As soon as it gets warmer, people will start coming out again in droves. And now all the factors indicate that it will be much more difficult for the authorities and the security bloc to suppress a new protest wave than it was in August,” Kupreychik says. 

For more on the opposition protests in Belarus

The angry and the powerless How the opposition protests in Belarus became a guerilla movement. Liliya Yapparova reports from Minsk.

For more on the opposition protests in Belarus

The angry and the powerless How the opposition protests in Belarus became a guerilla movement. Liliya Yapparova reports from Minsk.

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Story by Alexey Shumkin

Translated by Eilish Hart

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