MINSK -- Belarusian lawmakers have approved a second reading of several amendments to legislation severely restricting civil rights and the free flow of information amid a crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement.
The bills approved by members of the lower house on April 16 define a broad range of activities as “extremist,” providing additional ammunition for authorities to use draconian tactics to target and intimidate protesters and opposition forces challenging the official results of a presidential election last year that handed authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka his sixth consecutive term.
In the wake of the election, thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets in what has become the largest and most-persistent show of opposition to Lukashenka. More than 33,000 people have been arrested in a crackdown that has left much of the opposition leadership in exile or prison. The European Union, the United States, and other nations have refused to recognize the declared election results and slapped sanctions on Lukashenka and other senior Belarusian officials.
The new amendments are likely to spark an outcry for further action.
According to the amendments, any activities by individuals, political parties, or domestic or international organizations defined as undermining independence, sovereignty, the constitutional order, and public safety will be considered as "extremist."
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If approved and signed into law, the amendments would ban lawyers from defending people in some criminal and administrative cases. Most of the lawyers who worked with the Belarusian Association of Journalists and have defended RFE/RL reporters in recent months have already been stripped of their licenses.
The proposed changes also say that the following actions will be considered as extremist activities: the distribution of false information; insulting an official; discrediting the state; impeding activities of the Central Election Commission and other state organs; and participating in or organizing unauthorized mass protests.
One passage of the amendments says that any materials promoting unsanctioned public events that can be read, sung, or shown will be considered as "extremist symbols." That includes portraits of anyone who was legally found to be an extremist.
In other parts, amendments to the law on media will allow authorities to shut down media outlets after they receive warnings if their activities pose a "threat to the country's national security."
The amendments also expand the ability of authorities to limit access to online publications if they carry information banned for distribution and refuse to follow requests by officials to address violations.
Lawmakers also approved in a second reading of amendments to the Criminal Code. Among other things, the changes would toughen punishment for disobeying, threatening, and assaulting law enforcement.
Another amendment would prohibit live coverage of unsanctioned protests, making journalists a target for attending such events.
Amendments to other existing laws dealing with extremism would give law enforcement officers the right to use firearms at their own discretion without waiting for a command from supervisors. Police would also be given the right to create lists of individuals they feel are inclined to participate in extremist activities.
Once on such a list, a person would be banned from some activities, including journalism, publishing, and teaching, while their financial activities would be put under surveillance. The amendments allow the central bank to monitor cash withdrawals through foreign-issued debit cards and limit such withdrawals, as well as to freeze the bank accounts of "suspicious individuals."