Administrator of railroad workers’ online community blackmailed

An administrator of a railroad workers’ Telegram channel says Belarusian special services blackmail him. They offer to release his 15-year-old brother who has been recently detained in Belarus in exchange for the deletion of the Live. Railroad Workers’ Community in Belarus Telegram channel he manages. The channel posts information on the movement of Russian military equipment in Belarus.

The Mediazona news outlet contacted Siarhei Vaitsiakhovich who has been an admin of the Belarusian railroad workers’ community Telegram channel since 2020. Siarhei, 24, worked on the Belarusian railroad in the Minsk wagon service department for four years. In 2020, he created the Live. Railroad Workers’ Community in Belarus Telegram channel. The channel posts information about rail guerrillas, repression against railroad workers, and the movement of Russian military equipment in Belarus.

In May 2021, Siarhei left the country. In 2022, Belarusian authorities recognized the Telegram channel as “extremist”. It now has about 9,000 subscribers. The channel has an extensive network of informants working both on the railroad and in related organizations. The informants share information with the channel administrators, who then fact-check and verify it. Siarhei is not the only channel admin; however, he does not reveal the names of fellow administrators for security reasons. According to the channel’s creators, it is not only the Ukrainian intelligence service that finds it useful.

After Siarhei had left the country, his home was searched multiple times. His laptop, documents, and some old things have been confiscated. Security services started pressuring Siarhei’s family to put an end to his activities.

“As early as November-December 2022, KGB agents got hold of my parents and started asking that I stop it with the Telegram channel. The first time they came to my mother’s workplace, she is a saleswoman, and there were six of them. She was frightened, of course, as she didn’t expect it. They requested that I stop running the Telegram channel, and mom passed their request on to me. I replied that they didn’t need to feel scared and should contact me directly and not through my parents. But they did not get in touch with me,” Siarhei told the Zerkalo web portal.

In January 2023, security forces detained 15-year-old Artsiom Vaitsiakhovich, Siarhei’s younger brother. A conflict between Artsiom and another student was cited as a formal reason for the detention, but by then the conflict had been resolved. Artsiom was detained right at school: he was asked into the school social worker’s office, where the police had already been waiting for him. Artsiom is now held in the detention center on Valadarskaha Street in Minsk. According to Siarhei, his brother is charged with extortion.

After Artsiom’s arrest, law enforcers asked Siarhei through his mother to contact them. They demanded that Siarhei shut down his Telegram channel and stop any activities in exchange for the release of his brother. They started sending messages like “if you fulfill your mother’s request, you’ll bring happiness to your family for the next few years”, “diplomacy is better than war”, “a man should fulfill his mother’s request”, “the main thing is trust and steps toward each other”, and “don’t play dumb”. However, despite the blackmail and pressure on his family, Siarhei has made a difficult decision not to close the channel.

“Further down the line, they would’ve wanted more. Had I gone along with their demands, that very fact would have triggered them to ‘work’ further,” believes Siarhei. Siarhei’s mother saw his younger brother at the prosecutor’s office at the time of his indictment. Siarhei says that Artsiom is holding up well.

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