Belarus Lawmakers Approve Amendments That Severely Limit Civil Rights, Media

MINSK – The Belarusian legislature has approved several legislative changes that severely restrict civil rights and the free flow of information, while protests against the official results of a presidential election in which authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka was elected for the sixth consecutive year have been severely curtailed.

The texts of the controversial amendments to the laws on extremism and mass media resulting from ongoing crackdown on opposition groups who said a presidential election last August had been rigged in Lukashenka’s favor were approved at first reading on April 2 and on Published April 9 on the official legal documents website. This is the first time much of the information has been made public.

According to the amendments, all activities by individuals, political parties or national or international organizations that are defined as detrimental to independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty, the foundation of the constitutional order and public security will be considered “extremist”.

After the August vote, thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in what has become the largest and most stubborn opposition to Lukashenka in the nearly three decades he has held power.

More than 33,000 people were arrested for participating in the demonstrations. Many were beaten by the police, while some said they were tortured while in detention.

The European Union, the United States and other nations have refused to recognize the declared election results.

Several Western nations, as well as the European Union, have imposed sanctions on Lukashenka and other high-ranking Belarusian officials, and the new changes are likely to spark an outcry for further sanctions.

If approved and signed, the amendments would prohibit individual lawyers and private law firms from defending individuals in some criminal and administrative matters. Most of the lawyers who work with Belarusian journalists’ associations and who have defended RFE / RL reporters in recent months have already had their license revoked.

The amendments also state that in addition to the violent seizure of power, the creation of illegal armed groups and terrorist activities, the following actions will be considered extremist activities: disseminating false information; insult an officer; Discrediting the state and government organs; Hindrance to the activities of the Central Election Commission and other state organs; the active participation and organization of events of so-called mass disruption; and make calls to attend unauthorized public events or to provide financial support to such events.

Media raid

Changes to the Media Act allow authorities to shut down media companies within a year after two written warnings about their activities if the activities of those media companies pose a “threat to the national security of the country”.

The changes also require government agencies to restrict access to online publications if the Department of Information determines that materials from such publications contain information that has been banned.

The Belarusian state media reported earlier this week that the legislature had also approved amendments to the Criminal Code and laws on public assembly, state security and the Internet, the full texts of which have not yet been published.

Another change would require provisional approval from local authorities before public events are held, rather than provisional notification to authorities. It would also be illegal for media and social network users to post information about the date, place and time of such public events. Live coverage of these events would also be illegal.

The changes would also allow prosecutors to restrict access to Internet publications that “disseminate information that may harm Belarus’ national interests”.

Changes to six existing laws dealing with extremism would give law enforcement officers the right to use firearms at their discretion without waiting for an order from regulators. The police may also prohibit the taking of photos or videos. They could also collect personal information from social network users without court rulings or prosecutor’s arrest warrants.

The police would also have the right to draw up lists of people they believe are willing to take part in extremist activities. Once on such a list, a person would be banned from certain activities, including journalism, publishing, teaching, and their financial activities would be monitored.

The changes also allow the central bank to monitor cash withdrawals made with foreign-issued debit cards and limit such withdrawals as well as freeze the bank accounts of “suspects”.

With reporting from BelTA

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