Authorities in Belarus have ordered banks to seize money raised in small donations and paid out as compensation to victims of a police crackdown on protesters.
The funds were transferred to people who were beaten or fined after taking part in ongoing demonstrations against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.
After a presidential election, believed to have been rigged, in which Lukashenko declared an overwhelming victory, hundreds of people were left with injuries after systematic police violence on the streets and in jails. Thousands of people were also given fines, which prompted activists to set up fundraising efforts to provide compensation or support to pay the fines.
The BY_help fund, set up by the London-based Belarusian Andrei Leonchik, raised £2m within a few days of putting out the call in August, mostly from small donations from Belarusian citizens keen to show solidarity. After telephone consultations, it made payments ranging from small amounts to cover fines to several thousand pounds for those left with serious injuries.
By the beginning of this week, the group said it had received more than 8,700 applications for financial support and had paid out in more than 3,300 cases where people had been detained, injured or fined.
But authorities have now ordered banks to freeze any funds transferred by Leonchik, as well as opening a criminal case against him, according to leaked documents. One letter addressed to several Belarusian banks said Leonchik, together with the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was collecting money “to support protest actions in Belarus” with the aim of toppling the government, and ordered them to freeze funds.
Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after receiving threats in the aftermath of the election, claims she won despite her officially tally of 10%, and wants to lead a transition government that would prepare for new, free elections. She has met several European leaders, including the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who have voiced support for her. Lukashenko retains the backing, publicly at least, of the Kremlin.
“I have absolutely no links with Tikhanovskaya, and that was our intention from the very beginning,” said Leonchik, 38. He said he had deliberately decided to keep his fund separate from another fund, Belarus Solidarity, which makes payments to striking workers or helps them to leave the country. “This was a deliberate decision: they are the solidarity movement and we are the humanitarian movement,” he said.
Hundreds of people have been affected by the crackdown on the payments. On Tuesday morning, reports started coming in from people who had funds in their accounts frozen, and the numbers have grown since.
Some, who had already spent the money to pay off fines or on other expenses, found their accounts were overdrawn. In some cases, people had all access to their accounts blocked. The order to banks refers to a sum of 1.4 million Belarusian roubles (£415,000). Leonchik said some people were transferred funds from other accounts and so were not yet affected.
After the initial crackdown in August, Belarusian authorities have continued on the path of repression, with more than 20,000 people estimated to have been detained at some point, and many still facing criminal charges. Most of the opposition are either in jail or in exile, and while Lukashenko has promised constitutional reform, most see the process as window dressing.
The violence from Lukashenko’s police and plain-clothed goons continues. On Wednesday, Belarusian media reported that 31-year-old Roman Bondarenko, who was bundled into a van by security forces on Tuesday evening in Minsk, had died in hospital of head injuries.
Prior to last month’s election, the US president-elect, Joe Biden, voiced his support for the Belarusian opposition and promised to back them if elected. “Although President Trump refuses to speak out on their behalf, I continue to stand with the people of Belarus and support their democratic aspirations,” he said in a statement.