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Putin also signed a law that would bar people convicted of "moderate" crimes from seeking public office for a period of five years. (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a new measure that allows elections at all levels and referendums to be conducted by mail and via the Internet, according to the Kremlin's website.

The law was rushed through all three readings in the State Duma on May 13 and approved by the Federation Council, the upper house of the legislature, one week later.

Although the bill was introduced by lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party, media reports have asserted that it was drafted by the presidential administration.

The new law will not apply to the planned national vote on proposed constitutional amendments -- including a provision that would allow Putin to seek two more terms as president. That vote was set for April 22, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The new law allows the Central Election Commission to organize voting by mail or via the Internet. Lawmakers said the bill was necessary because of the restrictions on public gatherings imposed to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the new law, the gathering of signatures needed to qualify for elections can be conducted through a special government website.

Putin also signed a law that would bar people convicted of "moderate" crimes from seeking public office for a period of five years after their sentence is completed. Previously, only those with "serious" felony convictions were barred.

The new law would block anyone convicted under a law criminalizing multiple violations of the laws on public protests or of making public calls for "extremism."

With reporting by Meduza
More than 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government were arrested in 17 Belarusian cities between May 6 and 13, according to HRW.

Belarus has intensified its crackdown on independent activists and journalists with a "new wave of arbitrary arrests" ahead of presidential elections, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.

With polls less than three months away, more than 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government were arrested in 17 Belarusian cities between May 6 and 13, the New York-based human rights watchdog said on May 22.

It said that those detained were handed jail sentences of up to 25 days on charges of “participation in unsanctioned public gatherings” despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased risk of virus transmission in detention facilities.

The authorities "should not be arresting people for peaceful protests, but to expose them to higher risk of a deadly infection is unacceptable," said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.

The group urged Minsk to "act on the calls by the World Health Organization and other expert international bodies…to minimize the number of people in custody during the coronavirus epidemic."

Belarus, which has reported more than 34,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 190 deaths, hasn’t ordered a lockdown.

'Simply Outrageous'

HRW said those arbitrarily arrested this month included environmental protestors who opposed the construction of a battery factory in the western city of Brest, supporters of a popular blogger who has announced he would run for president, and human rights defenders and journalists who reported on peaceful public gatherings.

One of the detained activists was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after his arrest, while another fell ill with coronavirus symptoms during his detention, according to HRW.

"Arresting people for participating in or reporting on peaceful gatherings is an unjust penalty even in normal times, and pursuing this practice during a pandemic is simply outrageous," Lokshina said.

Critics of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power in Belarus for more than 25 years, say his government has shown little tolerance for dissent and independent media.

The country has been the target of U.S. and EU sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, but Belarus and the West have recently sought to mend ties to reduce Russia’s influence in the country.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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