'Finances objectionable to the state': activist collected $ 2 million for victims in Belarus
Seven thousand people were detained in Belarus in five days - many of the protesters were beaten by the security forces, some were tortured, the majority were fined or are serving an administrative arrest. More than two million dollars have already been raised for the victims of the protests. At the same time, the money is collected through the personal Facebook of the campaign organizer, and there will be no detailed reporting on payments. But «Medusa» found out that this is the only working scheme for Belarus - otherwise the fundraisers could be jailed.
Activist Andrei Leonchik and his assistant Nadzeya Norton announced fundraising for the “needs of victims of human rights violations” in Belarus at the end of June 2020. At the time of publication, they managed to collect more than 152 million rubles (over two million dollars). The number of donors has exceeded 50 thousand people. Famous Russians are also calling to help Belarusians. For example, the initiative was supported by the rapper Oksimiron.
Leonchik launched the campaign three months before the protests. As he explained in a conversation with Meduza, at that moment "it became clear that in connection with the presidential campaign, some kind of grudge had begun." Already at that moment the security forces came with searches to Lukashenka's opponents, many were arrested, and the presidential campaign was called “the dirtiest” in the history of the country.
Leonchik already had experience in collecting donations for victims of repression. In the spring of 2017, together with several associates, he collected funds to pay fines - then people all over Belarus protested against the so-called tax on parasitism. Leonchik himself calls this fundraising campaign “significant” for Belarus - he managed to collect 55 thousand dollars. Prior to that, no one collected so much for goals somehow connected with politics. But even this money was not enough to pay all the fines: collectively, the protesters were fined more than $ 120.
After that Leonchik and his team launched a fundraising campaign for victims of repressions in Belarus several times.
“We always have some reasons. For example, in 2019 there were searches in the media, and in December of the same year there were [uncoordinated] rallies against integration, ”the activist emphasizes.
Two million dollars in fines and medical treatment
Alexey Leonchik left Belarus in 2013. Now he lives "between" London (he is a graduate student at London City University) and Warsaw. In Poland, Leonczyk has his own small consulting company.
According to him, “several people” help Leonchik to raise funds. Fearing for their safety, he openly names only a few. Among them is Andrei Strizhak, an activist of the Belarusian trade union "Red", who has been helping Leonchik since the very first campaign of 2017. Since then, Strizhak himself has carried out several more similar initiatives. The most famous is ByCovid-19, collecting aid and purchasing equipment for Belarusian hospitals during the pandemic. We managed to collect about 330 thousand dollars for this. Now Strizhak is looking for doctors to provide first aid to wounded demonstrators and psychologists who will work on a volunteer basis with post-traumatic syndrome of victims.
Leonchik admits that 95% of the funds raised to help the protesters Belarusians were transferred to him after August 9, when the authorities began to violently disperse the protest actions. And most of the money, according to the activist, was transferred by Belarusians living in other countries and outraged by the actions of the authorities.
The collected money will be used to pay fines for participation in promotions and the services of lawyers. Also, the fundraising team wants to make lump sum payments to the victims, depending on the severity of the injuries. The minimum payment, according to Leonchik, will be 2000 Belarusian rubles (about $ 900).
“We have not yet decided what gradations we will use. We will experiment and watch, ”says the activist.
Payments have not started yet (this will not happen until August 22-25, when the team will withdraw money from Facebook). Now Leonchik and his associates are collecting information from human rights defenders about those who need help. They also created a special form - through it you can send an application for payment of a fine, the services of a lawyer or compensation for harm to health. A team of volunteers will review the applications and compare them with the lists of victims compiled by human rights defenders. Also, in order to receive money, the victims will have to send a decree on the appointment of a fine or confirmation of the injuries inflicted - for example, photos from the media or social networks.
Money on receipt
Leonchik notes that now “many crooks” have appeared on social networks, posing as a team to collect funds for victims in Belarus.
At the same time, the activist emphasizes that he himself will not provide detailed reports on the spending of the funds raised. For example, he will not disclose the identity of those who will be assisted - for reasons of their own safety.
“Those who trust me, they trust me. Those who do not trust me - here I will not change my mind. Therefore, we will not post information about those to whom we have transferred the money, naturally, if they do not agree, ”he emphasizes.
The money is still collected through Leonchik's personal Facebook account. No legal entity is behind this. However, in the future, the activist may open a non-profit organization to formalize payments - but it will not be registered in Belarus. And the money will still be transferred to the victims in cash or pay bills issued to them. Leonchik considers it unsafe to transfer money directly to the victims' cards.
“If there are a lot of shipments from one person to a bunch of accounts in Belarus, then, knowing our state, some article may appear, such as financing of riots or something like that. Therefore, I believe that we will make a kind of mix, that is, part of the cache, part of the translations. But in any case, we will ask for receipts in a standard form and put them in a daddy, which will be available to the same tax authorities if necessary, ”he explained.
Finances objectionable to the state
Despite the fact that Leonchik's fundraising does not meet the transparency criteria adopted by NGOs, human rights activists interviewed by Meduza emphasize that such a scheme is optimal for Belarus. And Leonchik's reputation, gained during the previous training camp, is beyond doubt.
Olga Smolyanko, director of the non-profit Center for Legal Transformation (Lawtrend), in a conversation with Meduza, emphasizes that it is almost impossible to create an official organization in Belarus for such fundraising due to restrictions in local laws and pressure from the authorities. The problem emerged back in the 1990s, and by 2004 most of the major human rights organizations in the country had been liquidated. Now many of them work without official registration in Belarus. For example, this is how Spring works. At the same time, there is a ban on the activities of unregistered organizations in the country. Until July 2019, such activities were criminalized, now they have been replaced by administrative ones - they face a fine of up to 500 euros.
Also, human rights organizations cannot receive funds from abroad or from corporate donors within the country. Belarusian legislation provides for a limited number of activities for which such funding is permitted - human rights protection is not included there.
Enira Bronitskaya, a human rights activist from the Belarusian organization Human Constanta, in a conversation with Meduza explains: in order for a Belarusian non-profit organization to receive money from abroad, it must request permission from the state. But human rights activists cannot get it, Bronitskaya emphasizes.
According to her, human rights organizations in Belarus have been forced to receive part of the money illegally for many years.
“Most of the Belarusian human rights organizations have clone organizations in other European countries, for which they receive money. Money is cashed abroad, volunteers bring it into the territory of the Republic of Belarus and give it to specific victims, ”explains Bronitskaya.
The human rights activist notes that Belarusian organizations “were very happy” when in 2017 Aleksey Leonchik and his team began to raise funds for the victims. Before that, human rights defenders had to collect money for fines and medical treatment under threat of closure.
“Now it looks like a civic initiative - in fact, it is. In addition, we are glad that this burden was removed from us [human rights organizations], it took away a lot of attention and pressure from the authorities, ”says Bronitskaya.
At the same time, she admits that if Leonchik had created some kind of legal entity in Belarus and collected money through it, then “he would have been in prison for a long time”.
She cites the experience of "Spring" as an example. Earlier, members of the organization, like Leonchik, used their personal accounts to receive international financial assistance and help people in Belarus. But in 2011, the head of the human rights center Ales Bialiatski was convicted of large-scale tax evasion due to the fact that his accounts in Poland were transferred to Belarus. These funds were considered his personal income. As a result, Bialiatski spent more than three years in prison.
Valentin Stefanovich from the human rights organization Viasna confirmed to Meduza that after the “sad story with Ales,” they no longer collect donations.
“Ales then spent three and a half years in prison, and I spent three months in forced emigration. Then he returned home. I almost sat down, but it passed, ”says Stefanovich.
Bronitskaya notes that there are working crowdfunding platforms in Belarus, but they are not related to human rights or political activities. And the attempts of their organizers to do it are fraught.
For example, in the spring, the Belarusian website MolaMola announced a fundraiser to help doctors in the COVID pandemic. One of the co-founders of the platform is Eduard Babariko, the son of a banker Viktor Babariko, who is not registered as a presidential candidate. Now both Babarikos have been arrested. The platform itself is locked.
“Their platform raised the most funds to help doctors because the state did not provide support during the covid period. The collection of any finances that are somehow objectionable to the state is blocked, ”says Bronitskaya.
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