The Chat is Declared to Be Extremist: What Does It Mean and How to Protect Yourself?
Published on September 22, 2022
On September 12 the Telegram chat “Belarusian Attorneys" was recognized as an extremist formation. At various times, it consisted of up to 200 lawyers. Let's try to figure out what consequences such recognition entails, what hostile actions may follow, and whether it is possible to protect yourself somehow.
It’s worth mentioning that one of the key principles of analyzing the situation and preparing tips and recommendations is not to give a false sense of security following the adoption of some measures or in connection with certain practices of law enforcement agencies. The fact is that repressive practices demonstrate that prosecution within administrative and criminal proceedings does not follow any logic — the scope of actions falling under the sanctions of the articles widens constantly, and the list of actions that previously did not entail responsibility is arbitrarily expanded by the police ad hoc (without any changes in the legal regulations) with the total connivance of the judicial system.
You can read more about the legal default in Belarus in this article (written in Russian). In this regard, it should be understood that there is no 100% protection and no powerful arguments against another police “invention” not provided for by the legislation. At the same time, knowledge and understanding of the current situation allow us to create a certain picture of reality.
Legal framework:
According to Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus:

1. The creation of an extremist formation, as well as a formation whose activities are aimed at the rehabilitation of Nazism, or the leadership of such a formation or a structural unit included in it, shall be punished by restriction of freedom for up to five years or imprisonment for a term of three to seven years.
2. The same acts committed repeatedly or by an official using his official powers shall be punished by restriction of freedom for a term of three to five years or imprisonment for a term of six to ten years.
3. The entry of a person into an extremist formation with the aim of committing an extremist-related crime (participation in an extremist formation) shall be punished by restriction of freedom for up to four years or imprisonment for a term of two to six years.

1. A person shall be exempt from criminal liability under this Article and Articles 361-4 and 361-5 of the present Code if, by timely notification to state bodies or otherwise, he contributed to the identification, prevention, or suppression of acts considered by legislation an extremist activity.
2. The extremist-related crime in this Article means a crime involving the commission of intentional actions recognized as extremism under legislative acts, as well as another crime provided for by this Code committed on the grounds of racial, national, religious hatred or enmity, political or ideological hatred or on the grounds of hatred or enmity in relation to any social group.
Law-enforcement practice:
There are two main trajectories in which this article is used: the persecution of the administrators of opposition initiatives in Telegram and the persecution of people who have registered in the mobilization P******a (“Victory”) Plan, recognized as an extremist formation.

Creation and administration.
In practice, there are a huge number of prosecution cases under Article 361-1 precisely for the creation and administration of Telegram channels. Many cases are mentioned here; over the past three months, 3 sentences and 1 arrest were reported. At the same time, cases were reported when the channel is recognized as an "extremist formation" after the detention of the alleged administrator under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (such were the cases of journalists Iryna Slavnikova (Bel*at TV Channel) and Andrey Kuznechik (Radio Lib**ty freelance journalist), but no such charge was brought in the case of Nasha N***).

In the case of participation, everything is somewhat more complicated as to the interpretation of the concept. There is not much information about the cases of prosecution, but some sporadic cases of attention from the security forces based on mere participation in the chat took place: there is a story of repeated interrogations and detentions of persons who were in the chat of people serving “chemistry”. However, judging by the fragmentary news as to the cases of Yevgeny Merkis (journalist accused of promoting extremist activities) and Ivan Muravyov (photographer and businessman accused of participating in an extremist formation), it is possible that the “ordinary” ways impede the punishments those who they want to see punished, so the participation in chats recognized as extremist has begun to be used as a basis for bringing to justice. However, there is not enough information for clear conclusions at the moment.

At the same time, there are many cases of prosecution for registration in the above-mentioned mobilization plan (27 cases of criminal prosecution), and interaction with the chatbots of the respective initiatives.
It should always be remembered that in addition to attempts to hold people accountable for mere participation in certain chats, there are many more cases of prosecution for participation in the chat combined with comments that can be considered as insults of public officials, utterances inciting hatred and for all kinds of calls to action.
Communication of information to such a “formation” is considered as participation in an extremist formation: GUBOPIK (the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) warns about it on its Telegram channels (12 sentences in three months, at least 6 detentions in border areas took place).

The situation was slightly clarified by the creation of two chatbots by the security forces, the first of which allowed persons to voluntarily refuse to participate in the “extremist organization” (meaning the above-mentioned mobilization Plan), and the second (called “Chance”) offered persons the way to turn themselves in, leave their contact details and thus, without serious consequences, “to stop any forms of participation in extremist and terrorist activities against Belarus”. The bot could be contacted if a person had ever written to the opposition channels feedback bots, undertook any tasks from the latter, communicated or distributed extremist materials, or was just a member of the opposition chats without committing real crimes. These bots are unavailable now due to their blocking by the Telegram administration.
Are there any means for protecting oneself in case of membership in a chat recognized as extremist?
It should be noted right away that there is no unambiguous solution that would guarantee that law enforcement agencies will not have the data that can lead to a specific person. In the case under consideration (the “Belarusian Attorneys” chat), the internal affairs bodies indicate the chat ID, which likely means that they have or used to have access to this chat in some form, or this information was obtained from the Telegram cache stored on a certain device. This means that, with a high chance, they also have a list of chat members since it is “visible” to the user through whom law enforcement agencies “look” into the chat. And if another chat member used it without hiding his phone number in the settings, with the enabled contacts synchronization, using their real name and surname, then it is not difficult to suss this member out, attribute undeleted (and in some cases even deleted) messages to them. As sad as it sounds, this is the reality.
In the case of using Telegram according to all the “Belarusian requirements” (meaning, without a real full name, without showing a phone number), the only linking thing is the user ID.
A Telegram ID is an identifier that is given to a group or user when creating a page. Indeed, bots exist that can determine the user ID.
After deleting the chat, it is hardly possible to establish the presence of users in it. However, we have already assumed that the data could have been collected in advance since it is likely that access to the chat was secured through someone's account.
Obviously, you can find out the ID of a particular user by accessing this user's account, and even then attributing messages and actions in other groups and places to this account is a simple task. The ID can also be known from the communication in which this user participated, and then by using various bots helping to find the messages of the user with this ID in various chats.
Therefore, we would recommend changing the user ID just in case. The user ID is not as flexible as a nickname or photo, so you can change it only by deleting the account. After that, you can create a new one linked to the same phone number. Then, in case someone gets access to your account, they would be able to find out only your “new” Telegram ID attached to the new user. Having run it through databases, they would no longer be able to get information related to another ID, that is, there would be nothing in common with previous chats and correspondence.
However, it is very important to understand that this makes little sense if the measures were not initially taken to conceal the phone number and real name.

The tech comments were provided by the CyberBeaver initiative, which offers cyber security tips through its secure bot, and also has a channel with useful materials on how to protect yourself on the Internet.

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