Tuesday, 27 Oct 2020

Night flight from Belarus: How a disgruntled policeman defected

MOSCOW (Reuters) – On Aug. 12, Ivan Kolos posted a video denouncing Belarus’s veteran leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and urging fellow police officers to stop using violence against demonstrators and to side with the people.

Belarusian police officer Ivan Kolos poses for a picture in Gomel, Belarus, May 9, 2018. Courtesy of Ivan Kolos/Handout via REUTERS

Hours later, Kolos fled Belarus under cover of the night for fear of arrest.

The 27-year-old from the southeastern city of Gomel said that within 20 minutes of the video starting to make waves in Belarus, officers were at his door demanding his police badge.

He said he refused to let them in but dropped his badge from the balcony of his apartment to officers below.

That night, he and his wife slipped out of their apartment block and sped by car to Russia. After a week in Russia, during which they changed SIM cards repeatedly to avoid detection, he said they travelled to Ukraine and then on to Poland.

“I was moved by a sense of justice. I saw how police officers, my colleagues, were carrying out crimes against their own people,” Kolos said from Warsaw, referring to allegations of police torture of people detained during mass protests against Lukashenko, which the government denies.

“That’s why I recorded this video,” he told Reuters.

The Gomel police station confirmed to Reuters that officers had gone to Kolos’s home after he failed to show up at work on Aug. 12 but had not sought to arrest him.

It added that when Kolos’ five-year contract had ended this year, he had been given a one-year extension instead of the usual five years because he was a “mediocre worker”.

The loyalty of the police, security forces and army is vital to Lukashenko’s hopes of clinging to power as mass protests continue over an Aug. 9 election which opponents say was rigged so that he could be declared the winner.

A battle is under way for the hearts and minds of law enforcement officers — with Lukashenko praising their “impeccable service” and handing out medals, and the opposition trying to persuade officers to defect.

A series of interviews conducted by Reuters with Kolos, opposition groups and an interior ministry spokeswoman suggest that Lukashenko is retaining their loyalty so far.

NO SIGN OF MASS DEFECTIONS

Reuters has no independent information about the scale of defections but, though several other police officers have made videos similar to the one posted by Kolos, there is no sign of the vast majority breaking rank.

Andrej Stryzhak, a human rights advocate who founded an organisation known as Bysol to help people affected by “political repressions”, said 700 law enforcement officers had come to opposition groups seeking help after quitting.

Stryzhak based his estimate on a count of how many appeals for assistance Bysol and a similar organisation had received from disgruntled officers.

Official figures for police numbers are rarely published, but Belarusian media outlet Tut.By estimated in July that the former Soviet republic had at least 39,000 police officers, 11,000 interior ministry troops and 45,000 army troops plus other personnel.

“If you add this all together, this (number of defections) is a very small number of people,” Kolos said.

In response to questions from Reuters, Belarusian interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said 11% fewer police officers had resigned in the first eight months of 2020 than in the first eight months of 2019. She declined further comment.

“BLACK BOOK”

The opposition has tried a variety of tactics to persuade police officers to quit.

Groups such as Bysol typically offer up to 1,500 euros ($1,746) in financial assistance and help in relocating or finding a new job.

Anonymous hackers have leaked personal data of more than 2,000 police officers, hoping the loss of privacy will expose them to criticism and encourage them to resign.

Some opposition activists have also used photographs taken during rallies to identify officers they accuse of violence, and have built up profiles of them in a “black book” that can be seen on the Telegram messenger service containing phone numbers, addresses and other data.

The veracity of the data could not be independently verified by Reuters.

Many security officers have taken to wearing masks and balaclavas at demonstrations to hide their identity, but protesters try to pull them down.

“This is basically the scariest thing for them,” said Anna Krasulina, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s spokeswoman, suggesting police felt vulnerable when they were more than “just a black mask without surnames.”

Kolos said some officers were too afraid of reprisals to quit and others had a financial incentive to stay as they would have to pay retrospectively for their police schooling if they quit. Others genuinely support Lukashenko, he said.

Although the number of defections appears lower than the opposition hoped, Stryzhak said those who had come to Bysol for help included higher-ranking officers. He did not say how many.

“This is only the beginning of the process,” he said. “Secondly, what’s important is not only the quantity but also the quality of the personnel leaving the system.”

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