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Belarusians Prosecuted Simply For Accepting Food Donations

Aksana Khinevich: "What is illegal if a person helps someone?"
Aksana Khinevich: "What is illegal if a person helps someone?"

One day in January, in the western Belarusian city of Barysau, the mother of a former political prisoner heard her doorbell ring at 7 a.m. Unsuspectingly, Aksana Khinevich opened the door, and a KGB ID card flashed before her eyes.

"Did you get help from INeedHelpBY via e-delivery?” she recalled the officer asking her.

That has become a dangerous question in Belarus.

As of late February, according to the Belarusian human rights organization Vyasna, at least 100 Belarusians had faced prosecution after accepting a two-week supply of food from individuals registered with INeedHelpBY, an online U.S. nonprofit that uses a Telegram bot to match donors with Belarusians whose “active political position” cost them their job or other income or led to “a large fine,” time in custody, or other restrictions on their freedom.

Fines push people to the brink of poverty. And they turn to us because they have nothing to fear anymore."
-- INeedHelpBY manager Alyaksey Lyavonchyk

Thousands of Belarusians have been detained or imprisoned since wide-scale protests in 2020 against presidential election results that gave Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term in office despite extensive evidence of fraud.

Khinevich’s son, Anatol, an IT specialist, spent 2 1/2 years in prison after being detained in the 2020 protests. With a monthly salary of just 300 rubles ($92) as a caregiver and a disabled mother to support, Khinevich told the KGB that she had received help from INeedHelpBY (“BY” is an abbreviation for Belarus) during this “difficult” period.

“What is illegal if a person helps someone?" she told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.

But to Belarusian prosecutors and security forces, such help amounts to using “foreign donations” to carry out “extremist activities,” under Article 24.15 of Belarus’s Code of Administrative Offenses.

On January 23, the same day the Belarusian State Security Committee, or KGB, listed INeedHelpBY as an extremist organization, police throughout the country detained, interrogated, and searched the residences of at least 287 people, mostly women, according to Vyasna, which Minsk considers an “extremist” organization. One of the cited reasons was the receipt of groceries from INeedHelpBY.

The resulting cases marked the first time that Article 24.15 has been applied, according to the Belarusian human rights organization Human Constanta.

According to INeedHelpBY’s Instagram channel, the group coordinated some $1.7 million worth of such assistance as of the end of 2023.

According to nine court rulings studied by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, people convicted of the offense have been sentenced to detention, confiscation of the donated goods, and fines equal to the value of the donations.

A woman caring for a small child in the western city of Lida was ordered in January to pay a fine of 1,000 rubles ($300), as well as 18,144 rubles ($5,550), the assessed value of the INeedHelpBY groceries.

Even receiving 300 rubles ($92) worth of groceries can result in fines.

In the western town of Navahrudak, a court found that a retired man who had received the groceries since 2022 “threatened to harm state and public interests." He was ordered to pay the state the 300 ruble ($92) assessed value of the groceries, pay a fine of 600 rubles ($184), and surrender his laptop and a nonworking cell phone.

One woman who said she lost her job after receiving groceries via INeedHelpBY told RFE/RL that a 2023 travel ban for people deemed a national-security threat or undergoing administrative court proceedings means that such people have “no way out” since they cannot work abroad to pay off the fine.

As of mid-March, some of the detainees remained in pretrial detention, suspected of abetting “extremist activities,” a criminal offense, according to Vyasna and relatives of detainees.

The founder of INeedHelpBY, Pilip Haurysheu, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as a pathologist’s assistant at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, declined to answer questions from RFE/RL about the government’s crackdown on these donations.

INeedHelpBY manager Alyaksey Lyavonchyk: “We remain the only group that can promptly deliver aid to Belarus.”
INeedHelpBY manager Alyaksey Lyavonchyk: “We remain the only group that can promptly deliver aid to Belarus.”

INeedHelpBY manager Alyaksey Lyavonchyk has conceded that grocery recipients can face jail or fines. Nonetheless, he anticipated 250 requests for help in March, the independent Belarusian news site Pozyrk (View) reported on March 5.

“We remain the only group that can promptly deliver aid to Belarus,” Lyavonchyk said. “Fines push people to the brink of poverty. And they turn to us because they have nothing to fear anymore."

A Russian-language warning on the INeedHelpBY site advises donors under investigation to delete the organization’s Telegram bot, which facilitates the donations, clear their caches, unsubscribe from the nonprofit’s social media channels, and request INeedHelpBY to purge their personal data.

The charity’s website says the group has experienced no data leaks.

It urges users to tell police the food they received was a donation “from friends, acquaintances, and compatriots,” and not from the nonprofit itself, which orders the food online on behalf of donors -- mostly from the Belarusian hypermarket chain Evroopt, according to the court cases.

But that distinction made no difference to the KGB officer who searched Khinevich’s apartment during the January 23 raid and had her detained overnight.

The officer, she said, confiscated two computer drives as well as flash drives, telephones, books, poems written by her son, and a sticker in the red and white colors used by the Belarusian pro-democracy movement.

After being fined 400 rubles ($122) for allegedly insulting a police officer – a charge Khinevich denies – she learned that the KGB would pursue the case further. Within a few days, she migrated to Lithuania to join her son, who was released from a Belarusian prison in February 2023.

On February 9, a Barysau Administrative Court judge fined her 800 rubles ($245) and ordered her to pay 2,854 rubles ($871.40), the assessed value of the groceries she received between February 2022 and April 2023. Khinevich, who joined the trial from Vilnius via the video-messaging app Viber, plans to appeal the verdict.

Despite the government pressure, INeedHelpBY has given no indication of stopping its “emergency food assistance.” The organization “will continue to help the repressed and their relatives in Belarus," Lyavonchyk told Pozyrk.

Written by Elizabeth Owen based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service
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