Prague, 2 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights activists say they are in no doubt: The draconian new legislation approved so overwhelmingly by the Belarusian National Assembly today is intended to stifle what little is left of free and open debate in Belarus.
A former judge of the Constitutional Court, Mikhail Pastukhou, was withering in his criticism. He told RFE/RL's Belarus Service: "The adoption of such amendments means the de facto declaration of a state of emergency in Belarus. It forbids making all kinds of statements and inhibits the right to public assembly. There's not been a law like it anywhere else in the world.""
'Politically Motivated And Repressive'
This week, Aleh Hulak, Valyantsin Stefanovich, Hary Pahanyayla, and Dzmitry Markusheuski appealed to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to withdraw what they called his "politically motivated and repressive" bill.
Hulak tied the bill to next year's presidential election in Belarus. "We see no basis for the introduction of such harsh restrictions on public activities, or on the preparation of mass demonstrations," he said. "Our government does not even try to conceal that this is a response to the upcoming presidential election, and that these legislative amendments are being introduced in order to gain control over the situation."
Two Key Points
Few doubt that they are pursuing a lost cause. The bill was submitted by the president and, observers say, will sail undisturbed through both houses of the National Assembly.
What worries human rights activists and opposition politicians in particular are two key points in the bill. The first is a sweeping catch-all amendment to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, which would make it a punishable offense to discredit Belarus's standing abroad. The offense would be punishable by a prison sentence of up to six months.
Critics of the bill point out that its loose wording means it could be used to encompass virtually anything -- any criticism of the president, for instance, or of the political, economic, and social state of the country.
Keeping People Off The Streets
The second makes it a criminal offense to train people to take part in street protests, a clause that appears intended to crack down on the sort of youth movements that were so prominent in the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Kmara in Georgia and Pora in Ukraine played key roles in mobilizing youth activism.
With presidential elections due next year, President Lukashenka appears intent on stifling any home-grown youth movements before they can become a threat. The proposed legislation would impose a prison sentence of up to two years for training people to take part in street protests and other "group activities that flagrantly violate the public peace."
Stepan Sukhorenko, head of the KGB, as the Belarusian security service is still known, this week accused two youth groups, the Youth Front and Zubr of using foreign help to form their organizational core and prepare the ground for mass protests among the young.
Pressure From Abroad
Belarus, he said, had to defend itself against unprecedented pressure from abroad -- in particular the United States. The bill would make it easier to crack down on crimes against the state and its ruling bodies, which created the preconditions for foreign pressure. The security services would, he said, take tough but legal action to prevent any disruption of next year's elections. The new legislation moving its way through parliament will undoubtedly facilitate the KGB's task.
Deputy Justice Minister Alyaksandr Petrash joined Sukhorenko in defense of the bill. "I don't have any worries concerning the adoption of this law," he said. "You don't say bad things about your family in public, do you, so don't say bad things about your republic, when it's not really true."
Journalists too find themselves in Lukashenka's firing line. The legislation would make it an offense to call on foreign states or organizations to take measures detrimental to Belarus -- and to disseminate information publicizing such appeals.
The bill now goes to the upper house, the Council of the Republic, for final approval.
(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)