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The EU has funded surveillance and patrol equipment worth more than €2 million for the benefit of the Belarusian border authorities, a Danwatch and OCCRP probe into EU-funded tenders and contracts show.
The equipment includes surveillance cameras, communication equipment, seismic sensors, and patrol vehicles and boats.
President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained tight control on Belarus over the past 25 years, relying on authoritarian policies to limit democratic opposition, free speech and critical media. Belarus remains the only European country still using the death penalty.
These are among the reasons for the EU’s embargo of Belarus,which prohibits the supply of equipment that may be used for political repression in Belarus. The embargo, which the EU Council last renewed in February 2018, prohibits the sale, supply, transfer or export of the equipment, as well as its financing.
In an email, Anton Bychkovskiy, official representative of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus (SBC), writes that: the equipment is “intended to improve the security of the ‘green’ and water border of the Republic of Belarus with Ukraine. This refers to the border guard between the checkpoints”.
“A government crackdown on civil society started in 2017, with authorities carrying out the broadest wave of arrests of peaceful protesters since 2010. For the first time in 10 years, authorities registered a political opposition movement, although no new political party has been able to register since 2000. Restrictive legislation continues to prevent rights groups from registering and operating freely. Belarus is the only European country to still use the death penalty and the authorities have not undertaken any steps towards its abolition.”
“Between February and April (2018, edit), the authorities violently cracked down on peaceful protests. The government continued to refuse to accept the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus. Several individuals seeking international protection were returned to countries where they were at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. Heavy legislative restrictions on media, NGOs, political parties and public assemblies remained in place. One person was executed and four were sentenced to death.”
“Belarus continues to be governed by a deeply entrenched repressive legal framework, which is aggravated by cyclically recurring waves of massive violent repression against those who attempt claim their human rights. Peaceful demonstrators, non-governmental organizations, political opponents, human rights activists and independent media workers continue to be the targets of a systematic harassment.”
The risk of human rights abuses in Belarus increases following the delivery of surveillance equipment, according to Joshua Franco, head of Technology and Human Rights in Amnesty International.
“We have seen human rights abuses linked to surveillance in Belarus, and we have seen abuses of the rights of asylum seekers and migrants”.
Franco argues that the EU has a responsibility to ensure that they do not facilitate human rights abuses, when supplying equipment of this type to a country like Belarus.
Surveillance equipment can facilitate human rights abuses in a variety of ways, according to Franco.
“If the equipment is delivered to borders, there is the risk of push back of asylum seekers. In terms of internal repression, surveillance in general has a chilling effect on civil society. It is all conducted in secrecy, and the fact that no one can know, when they are subject to surveillance, causes people to self-sensor,” Franco says, adding:
“The EU is sacrificing human rights in the eagerness to limit migrants and refugees from reaching the EU. It is a worrying trend.”
|Pulsar Expo s.r.o., Czech Republic||230,202.00||5/1/2016||Supply and delivery of all-terrain vehicles for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|Friendly LLC, Republic of Belarus||17,834.74||11/1/2016||Supply and delivery of communication equipment for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|Friendly LLC, Republic of Belarus||402,525.30||11/1/2015||Supply and delivery of communication equipment for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|Macht-Project LLC, Russian Federation||21,253.93||12/1/2015||Supply and delivery of antenna masts for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|Prikladnaya Radiofizika LLC, Russian Federation||307,800.00||11/1/2015||Supply and Delivery of Integrated security system (ISS) equipment to perform construction works to equip the checkpoint flanks, including cables and wires for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|Polus ST LLC, Russian Federation||380,976.75||12/1/2015||Supply and Delivery of Seismic sensor sets (sensors, receiving device, accessory equipment) for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|Technoplast DLC, Republic of Belarus||765,642.24||3/1/2016||Supply and delivery of motor and patrol boats for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|RBB Moto LLC , Republic of Belarus||70,359.44||8/1/2015||Supply and delivery of quadro-cycles for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|«Agromashresurs» LLC, Republic of Belarus||32,558.72||8/1/2015||Supply and delivery of snow and swamp-going vehicle for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|DEKK International LLC, Republic of Belarus||19,428.62||8/1/2016||Supply and delivery of IT equipment for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|LEARA PPUE, Republic of Belarus||21,888.00||11/1/2015||Supply and delivery of flashlights for the benefit of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus|
|Autosalon-AV Ltd, Belarus||16,400.00||16/11/2017||Delivery of the Vehicle – Introduction of an Automated Intelligent Video-control System at road border crossing point Novaya Huta – Novi Yarilovychi at the Belarus-Ukraine Frontier|
The contracts show that the equipment has been delivered to the State Border Committee of Belarus, which has been instrumental in the government crackdown on civil society that has escalated since 2017.
Border guards check identities against a database and are alerted when political activists, trade unionists and opposition politicians considered “troublesome” by the regime, attempt to cross border points. Authorities use the border crossings as pretexts for harassment, such as the confiscation of communication equipment and strip searches.
At least 23 cases of such border stops have been documented over the past six years.
Trade unionists and political activists who are being stopped regularly, say that they view the border stops as a form of repression in response to their work or political views.
“I don’t know if they want to exert moral pressure, or demonstrate that we are watched over,” said Lena, a political activist who has been stopped and searched at border points five times since she participated in opposition rallies last year.
“What I know is that they have started to stop me after the events of March 2017, when me and my friends were preventively detained on the street”, she says.
The border guards are not breaking the law, writes Anton Bychkovskiy from the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus in an email:
“The border guard officers operated within the framework of the law, in accordance with established procedures that are within their competence. It is also a common European and world border guard practice. Further inspections and decisions regarding each particular case are beyond the competence of the border guard service”, he states in the email.
Most of the equipment is supplied as part of an EU programme to strengthen border control in countries neighboring the EU, which was implemented to prevent migrants from reaching EU territory.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), which was hired by the EU to carry out the project, procured the surveillance and patrol equipment from Belarusian and Russian security companies.
Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, associate professor at Aalborg University, has carried out extensive research into the EU’s policy of supplying third countries with border control equipment in order to limit the number of refugees and migrants reaching the external border.
“But the type of equipment that is supplied does not distinguish between a citizen, a migrant or a refugee. It is not only used to target refugees and migrants – this is totalitarian infrastructure that gives regimes, like the one in Belarus, the possibility to surveil everyone within its borders, including its own citizens. And Belarus is a regime with a long track record of violating the fundamental rights, which the EU claims to uphold,” says Lemberg-Pedersen.
The EU may be violating its own embargo on equipment that may be used for internal repression by supplying surveillance equipment to the Belarusian regime, experts say.
In 2011 the EU introduced an embargo on the export, supply, sale or financing of arms and equipment that may be used for internal repression to Belarus, after violations of international electoral standards and international human rights law, as well as the crackdown on civil society and democratic opposition. The embargo has been renewed several times, last in February 2018.
The embargoed equipment that could be used for internal repression includes vehicles specially designed for the transport or transfer of prisoners and/or detainees, night vision, thermal imaging equipment and image intensifier tubes, and razor barbed wire.
The Council Decision from 2012, which was renewed in February this year, states:
“1. The sale, supply, transfer or export of arms and related material of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment and spare parts for the aforementioned, as well as equipment which might be used for internal repression, to Belarus by nationals of Member States or from the territories of Member States or using their flag vessels or aircraft, shall be prohibited whether originating or not in their territories.
2. It shall be prohibited to:
(a) provide, directly or indirectly, technical assistance, brokering services or other services related to the items referred to in paragraph 1 or related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance and use of such items, to any natural or legal person, entity or body in, or for use in, Belarus;
(b) provide, directly or indirectly, financing or financial assistance related to the items referred to in paragraph 1, including in particular grants, loans and export credit insurance, for any sale, supply, transfer or export of such items, or for the provision of related technical assistance, brokering services or other services to any natural or legal person, entity or body in, or for use in, Belarus;”
Most problematic is the supply of infrared illumination surveillance cameras, a technology designed to detect people even in dark conditions, as the EU embargo prohibits the supply of “night vision and thermal imaging equipment”.
The cameras were delivered as part of a €300,000 contract with a Russian security company, financed by the EU border control programme. The infrared cameras are able to detect people up to a distance of 110 meters, according to tender documents.
“The IR surveillance cameras risk violating the embargo, dependending on the technical specifics of the delivered equipment, since they enable night vision or low light surveillance,” says Peter Danssaert, and expert in the arms trade and defense logistics with International Peace Information Service (IPIS). Danssaert has worked as a consultant to both the EU and the UN.
Another defense analyst, Jon Hawkes from the renowned British defense research agency Jane’s, says:
“Generally speaking I would say that a device listed as ‘video surveillance IP-cameras with infrared illumination’ could be something I would expect to fall within the classification of ‘Night vision, thermal imaging equipment and image intensifier tubes’. However this is subject to clearer identification of the equipment.”
We asked the European Commission whether the EU risks contributing to internal repression or human rights violations against refugees in Belarus, resulting from the supply of surveillance equipment to Belarusian border authorities.
This question remains unanswered, but in an email, Alceo Smerilli, Press Officer at the European Neighborhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations and for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, states:
“The focus of the SURCAP II program is on enhancing security levels on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border as regards notably irregular migration, smuggling of goods (alcohol, tobacco, and drugs), human trafficking, and organized crime. It also aims at promoting respect for human rights, such as rights of migrants, asylum-seekers, victims of trafficking and smuggling in persons. Trainings and study visits were organized to a number of EU Member States to learn from the best EU practices in working with irregular migrants (including on how to ensure respect for human rights).”
This investigation was conducted in collaboration with Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), published in the Danish Daily Politiken and financially supported with a grant from the IJ4EU fund.
The investigation divided into articles. You decide where to begin.
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