New Belarusian law threatens protesters with years in prison

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BelTA

CORRECTING DATE - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko listens to his son, President of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee Viktor Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday June 8, 2021. (Sergei Shelega/BelTA Pool Photo via AP, File)

KYIV – The authoritarian president of Belarus signed a law Tuesday that allows prison sentences of up to three years for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration, the latest move in a relentless crackdown on protests against his rule after nearly 27 years in power.

Previously, taking part in unauthorized demonstrations was punishable by fines or brief jail terms ranging from several days to two weeks. The bill President Alexander Lukashenko signed permits judges to sentence people convicted of joining at least two unauthorized protests over a year to up to three years in prison.

The revised law also toughens the maximum punishment for the “rude violation of public order” from three years to five years in prison. Belarusian authorities have leveled those charges widely against participants in months of protests fueled by Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term in an August election that was widely seen as rigged.

More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands beaten by police during the government's response to the unrest. Belarusian authorities also have relentlessly cracked down on journalists, including blocking several major news websites and outlawing opposition-leaning messaging app channels as extremist.

The wide-ranging repression was spotlighted on May 23, when Belarus diverted a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania to Minsk, where authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist who was on board the airliner.

Since his arrest, Pratasevich, 26, has been shown tearfully repenting for his activities and praising Lukashenko in videotaped remarks aired on state TV. The political opposition has slammed the remarks as coerced.

The legislation signed Tuesday also introduces two-year prison terms for posting “banned information” online, such as calls for the government's ouster.

It follows up on another law approved by Lukashenko last month that bans news media from doing live reports on unauthorized demonstrations and allows the Information Ministry to shut down a media organization without a court order.