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Safety tips for NGOs and activists in the occupied territory

On February 24, 2022, the russian federation launched a full-scale invasion of the territory of Ukraine. In the first days, the eastern and southern regions of the country were under occupation. Representatives of grassroots initiatives, public activists and concerned citizens continue to help people in the occupied territories.

Natalya Yesina, a lawyer and the head of the NGO “Northern Human Rights Group”, collected tips on how to conduct one’s activities in the occupation safely.

If you have an active civic position and are a member or founder of a civil society organization that finds itself in the difficult conditions of temporarily occupied territories, it is worth reformatting your usual activities for a certain period.

First of all, it is necessary to preserve the life and health of you personally and the members of your organization. After all, it is known that the russian military collects personal data of local residents in the occupied territories in order to further harass people, use them in propaganda videos, intimidate and, unfortunately, physically destroy them. They are primarily interested in current and former military personnel, members of their families, as well as public activists, volunteers, journalists and cultural figures.

General safety rules

If possible, during the occupation, it is worth transferring the activities of the organization to a remote format, refusing to visit the office and receive visitors there. In addition, it will not be superfluous to take computer equipment, important documents and valuables from the premises where you usually work, because the office can be robbed. If you keep documents that can be used by third parties, these documents should also be carefully hidden or transported to a relatively safe place.

Don’t ever tell anyone important personal information about yourself: your home address and the current location of your family members (your colleagues and their loved ones).

If you have to move around the settlement, it is better to do it on foot or by bicycle, and if possible only during the day. Avoid checkpoints and patrol routes – you should minimize contacts with the russian military. Do not unnecessarily risk your life by provoking them (for example, public video or photo shooting, discussions, arguments, loud shouting, etc.).

During the tests, answer briefly and neutrally, in general phrases, do not maintain a conversation and avoid details. ​​Have clear answers in your head to standard questions, which are usually quite simple, even basic: where you are from and where you are going, who you work for, etc. In such cases, it is not the answers themselves that are important, but their speed and clarity. The idea works: if a person answers everything quite clearly and quickly, then, most likely, he or she is telling the truth. Therefore, other questions may not be necessary.

Choose simple clothes that do not attract attention, in no case camouflage or military, wear simple shoes. For safety purposes, cover up tattoos, refuse things with symbols and stickers in/on transport for a certain time. Check everything in the glove box, trunk, under the rear window, in the doors and seats of your car – in case of a search or inspection.

Safe public activity – is it possible?

Since it is difficult for any organization to implement a full statutory operation under occupation, try to do what is good, act and cooperate with other people you can trust to do better together. If you can, help those in need. Take care of those who live in your house, driveway, neighborhood – people with disabilities, women with children, the elderly, and others who need support.

In no case do not publish on the Internet photos of places where people gather to receive humanitarian aid or for other reasons.

Also, remember that any public event may attract the attention of the occupation authorities. And if it takes place in cooperation or with the participation of at least one representative of the temporary (occupational) local administration, it can not only cast a shadow on the reputation of your organization, but also give you a reason to prosecute you. After all, part 6 of Art. 111-1 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine now provides for responsibility for organizing and conducting events of a political nature, carrying out information activities in cooperation with the aggressor state and/or its occupation administration, aimed at supporting the aggressor state, its occupation administration or armed formations and/or at her avoidance of responsibility for armed aggression against Ukraine, in the absence of signs of treason, active participation in such activities. This crime will be punishable by deprivation of liberty for a period of 10 to 12 years with deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for a period of 10 to 15 years and with or without confiscation of property.

According to clauses 2 and 3 of the Notes to Art. 111-1 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, events of a political nature in this case mean congresses, gatherings, meetings, marches, demonstrations, conferences, round tables, etc., and the implementation of information activities – creation, collection, receipt, storage, use and distribution of relevant information.

Carefully use opportunities to comment on the situation to journalists of Ukrainian and foreign mass media. Yes, they will be glad to learn “firsthand” about what is happening in your locality, but you should remember that you are exposing yourself to danger. Therefore, it may be advisable to use a pseudonym for participation in materials for the media, and also not to indicate facts and circumstances that can identify you, your loved ones or colleagues.

If you do give interviews and comments, use correct messages that can be correctly translated into foreign languages ​​(for example: instead of the words “occupiers” or “orcs”, you should say “military of the armed forces of the russian federation”), focus on civilians , their condition and problems.

Remember that naming military locations or accusing them of committing crimes during the occupation can be life-threatening for you.

Make a personal unique algorithm for notifying your colleagues and the community in the controlled territory that you are in danger. For example, it can be a message that your relatives will send to certain contacts if you have been illegally detained. Or scheduled text that will automatically appear on your social media page unless you cancel its publication.

If you are sure of your safety and have the strength and time to do so, record the war crimes committed by the russian military against the local population and civilian objects. This information will be needed to bring the guilty parties to justice! But do it in a way that is safe for you, using the rules of cyber security.

Cyber security

Upload copies of all your important documents to cloud media. Create separate new accounts for this and use an unusual login and password (but not those that are worth writing down!).

Cancel synchronization of accounts on devices.

It is important to install VPN software on all electronic devices so that you can get the real information even if access to it is blocked (for example, Avast SecureLine VPN or another paid service that has a good reputation among users).

Do not connect to unfamiliar and public Wi-Fi networks that do not have passwords, as the information you will transmit may become available to third parties – only use mobile Internet or secure Wi-Fi networks that you know and trust.

Be careful with secure instant messaging services (messengers). According to digital security experts, you should use WhatsApp, Threema and Signal. In addition, use the options of setting “disappearing” chats, because you will not always have the opportunity to delete individual messages or all correspondence.

If possible, purchase cards from different mobile operators in case the equipment of any of the operators disappears, or use the option of switching operators.

Do not give important information in telephone conversations, such as the placement of military equipment or the presence of the military armed forces of Ukraine – by doing so, you harm the defense of our state against the enemy and put yourself and your relatives at risk.

It is worth renaming the contacts of people who participate in the resistance in your city or serve in the Armed Forces – come up with other names for them and do not save the history of calls and correspondence. In general, the contacts of military personnel of the armed forces, journalists, activists and politicians should also be transferred to the cloud storage and temporarily removed from the phone book.

Anything that could harm you or the resistance movement of your settlement that you are helping or know about should be removed from your device. If this is not possible, it would be appropriate to use two phones, one of which should be securely hidden in case of a search.

Social networks: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Linkedln can also play a bad role if you post patriotic information there. Closing the page from unnecessary users or deleting it will cause a lot of suspicion during inspections. As an option, leave an active page in one social network, removing from it everything that may cause a negative reaction when verifying your identity, and do not conduct public activities for a while.

Remember that you will bring more benefit to society if you preserve your health and life!

P. S. More relevant information on legal and humanitarian issues – is in the special section #StandWithUkraine. It accumulates materials that may be useful to those who suffer, whose rights are violated as a result of the war between russia and Ukraine.

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