Updated at 14:38,23-10-2020

'The only way to stop violence': why protesters are unmasking Belarus police

Shaun Walker in Moscow, The Guardian

'The only way to stop violence': why protesters are unmasking Belarus police
Security personnel prepare to move against protesters. Photograph: tut.by
During the past month’s uprising against Alexander Lukashenko, riot police and assorted thugs loyal to his regime have been given carte blanche by the Belarusian president to harass, assault and arrest peaceful protesters.

In recent days, however, protesters have found out that for all Lukashenko’s men’s ruthlessness and impunity, they have a vulnerable point: their faces. Grab at the mask of a policeman and he will run for cover.

Since the beginning of the protests, which followed rigged elections on 9 August, the majority of police, security officers from the feared KGB, and other officers targeting protesters have hidden behind masks or balaclavas. Footage from rallies in recent days showed that when large groups of protesters swarmed around police officers and grabbed at their masks or balaclavas, their response was to hide their faces in their hands or run.

“The only way to stop violence is to pull off the masks, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. An officer who is no longer anonymous will think twice before he grabs, beats or kidnaps someone,” said the founder of Black Book of Belarus, a channel on the app Telegram devoted to “de-anonymising” police officers, with more than 100,000 subscribers. The group’s founder spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity via a Telegram chat.

The group would receive photos or videos of particular officers and begin a search using face-match technology, its founder said. If this didn’t work, they put out a call asking the public for identification. Often, people recognised their acquaintances in photographs, and there was even one case when someone helping run the Telegram channel spotted an old acquaintance. Once the team had a name, they could search for information in open-source databases.

On Wednesday, the Belarusian interior ministry said it had arrested 21 people for making threats against police officers or their families, and said it would continue to search for and arrest all those threatening police.

Last week, Nexta, a Telegram channel with more 2 million followers that was coordinating protest actions, said “cyber-partisans” had sent a hacked database of the personal data of tens of thousands of police employees.

The channel said it would make the information public if violence did not stop within a week, and asked any police officers who had left the service in the past month to supply their personal information to avoid their details being made public in error. “It’s time to cross over on to the side of the people, otherwise your life will never be the same again,” the channel wrote.

On Wednesday evening, it published the names and dates of birth of 12 riot police officers it said had “blood on their hands”, as well as some of their car licence plate numbers.

In an interview in Warsaw earlier this month, Stepan Svetlov, the 22-year-old founder of Nexta, denied that his channel was promoting vigilante attacks, and said the idea behind making people’s names public was to shame them. “Policemen are scared to show their faces and they hide behind masks. People are very negative towards these people now, and will tell all their neighbours and friends that they are living alongside evildoers,” he said.

The founder of the Black Book of Belarus also denied that his group was encouraging violence against the police, saying he only wanted them to feel responsibility for their actions and fear legal retribution for crimes committed. However, there was a dark hint that if Lukashenko’s regime continued to hold on by force, some of the protesters, who had so far remained peaceful, could become more radical.

“If they start kidnapping and killing people, then the killers will not be able to feel comfortable even in their own apartments. If the state cannot be responsible for dispensing justice, then ordinary people may take this function into their own hands,” Svetlov said.