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2020.10.06 10:12

Belarus uses EU funds via Lithuania to acquire drones amid crackdown on protesters

updated October 7
Andrew Rettman, euobserver2020.10.06 10:12

Lithuania's police has denied reports confirmed by diplomats in Brussels that the country had delivered 15 drones to the Belarusian authorities.

This story originally appeared on EUobserver. Comments by the Lithuanian police were added by LRT English.

The EU has bought 15 surveillance drones for Belarusian authorities, prompting alarm they could be used against pro-democracy protesters.

Lithuanian police handed over the equipment to the Belarusian State Committee for Forensic Science on September 16 – in the middle of a brutal police crackdown, which has seen thousands of people snatched off the streets, beaten, and tortured.

And the EU foreign service paid for them out of an €850,000 neighbourhood project being handled by Latvia and Lithuania.

Read more: Lithuania recalls its ambassador from Minsk

The security cooperation appeared to go against the EU's vocal support for the pro-democracy movement. And opposition activists feared the drones could be used against them, for instance, to identify individual protesters, leading to arrests.

They would be flown "not only in the capital, but also in the Minsk, Vitebsk, and Grodno regions", the Belarusian forensic committee said on its website.

And each one was "equipped with photo and video equipment that will allow you to qualitatively depict the scene and [...] significantly help in the investigation of criminal cases", the Belarusian committee said.

For its part, Lithuania said the drones were delivered in September due to "contract procedures". But Vilnius "suspended all payments to the Belarusian side related to joint EU-Belarus projects as of August 9", when the protests broke out.

The drones had not been used for anything yet, the EU foreign service added.

"According to information received from the Lithuanian programme authorities, the light drones were delivered but have not been put into operation," it told EUobserver. And they could not be used against protesters anyway, it said.

"Due to their technical characteristics, it is apparently not possible to use these drones to identify individuals as they are specialised in large crime scene investigation," the EU foreign service said.

Under "contractual obligations", Belarusian authorities were meant to use them only for "project objectives", the EU also said.

It mentioned "catastrophes, natural disasters, ecological disasters". But Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus highlighted different applications.

The drones were to be used for "border protection, help during disasters and accidents", a Latvian diplomat said. They would be used for "surveillance of border-line areas and providing forensic expertise in criminal investigations," a Lithuanian diplomat said.

And they would "help during the inspection of man-made and natural accidents, traffic accidents, search for people in the woods", the Belarusian forensic committee said.

Project objectives

"Of course [...] that equipment needs to be used only for the reasons it has been provided", the Latvian diplomat said.

"We do hope that the drones will be used according to their purpose," the Lithuanian diplomat said.

"The European Commission [...] will keep closely monitoring the programme and the project's implementation," the EU foreign service added.

Read more: Surviving captivity in Minsk. Belarusian detainee recalls abuse and endless beatings

But for one Belarusian activist, who asked not to be named for security reasons, the EU words provided little comfort. "Who can prevent the use of these drones to disperse protests?" he told EUobserver when the project came to light.

"The excuses that it's not the police, but forensic experts look pathetic [...] Do they [the EU] have any conscience or brains?" he said.

Lithuanian police denies it purchases the drones

“The launch of the project took place remotely, no physical meetings took place with the partners and no [physical meetings] are planned [in the future],” Ramūnas Matonis, spokesman for Lithuanian police, told LRT.lt in a written statement.

“There will be no joint training or any other activities. The Belarusians themselves buy the equipment, the Lithuanian police takes no part in it [and] cannot influence these purchases. The funds are provided by the European Commission.”

To the best of “our knowledge, the EC will on October 8 consider the further course of action of [the joint] projects with Belarus”.

The Lithuanian police later updated their response, saying that “the Lithuanian police transferred the funds received under the EC programme to the Belarusian State Forensic Examination Committee on May 8”.

Police Commissioner General: drones procured by Belarusians

In a press conference later on Tuesday, the police denied it had handed over 15 drones to the Belarusian authorities.

"According to our data, the Belarusian side bought 15 drones with the money transferred [by the Lithuanian police],” Police Commissioner General Renatas Požėla told reporters. “As far as we know, these drones are used to inspect [a crime] scene, which is located in a large area.”

"The Lithuanian police did not make any acquisitions on the Belarusian side, but simply implemented their contractual obligations [to transfer the funds]” which was done “before the [August 9] elections in Belarus”, said Požėla.

He added that the 15 commercial drones were procured by the Belarusian themselves under the supervision of “EU institutions”.

EU declines to give further details

EUobserver's original enquiries about the project had indicated that Lithuanian police handed over the drones in September, after the pro-democracy protests in Belarus had begun, despite a risk they could be used against demonstrators.

The EU foreign service, whose money paid for the drones, declined to give further details.