Belarus Criminalises the Discrediting of Lukashenka Regime
GeneralDecember 23, 2005
- Presidential election set for 19 March 2006 - believers and NGOs that report religious repression now risk imprisonment - nation moves in to lock-down mode - China and Iran offer Lukashenka solidarity and assistance
On Friday 16 December, Belarus' parliament voted unanimously to hold presidential elections on 19 March 2006, a full six months before President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's mandate expires. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports, "That decision leaves potential candidates with far less time to prepare for the race. Hopefuls now have just three days (until 23 December) to meet the first requirement in the registration process -- collecting the names of at least 100 supporters to form a nomination group. Those that manage to qualify for registration will be announced on 27 December. Then each group will have just four weeks (29 December-27 January) to gather at least 100,000 signatures needed for a candidate to be formally added to the ballot." (Link 1)
In anticipation of the elections, Lukashenka has had Belarus' Criminal Code amended to provide tough penalties for anyone convicted of spreading information that discredits the Republic of Belarus, and anyone convicted of training for or participating in political demonstrations. The new laws are designed to crush opposition and muzzle dissent against the regime of President Lukashenka as he prepares for the presidential elections. Of particular concern is the risk now faced by Christian individuals, churches and non-government organisation (NGOs) that report human rights abuses, including religious liberty repression and persecution. While the free world protests, Lukashenka bolsters himself with pledges of solidarity and assistance from China and Iran.
LAW AGAINST DISCREDITING THE REPUBLIC OF BELARUS
The law against discrediting the Republic of Belarus is vague enough to enable the prosecution of anyone reporting negative information, including reports of religious persecution and repression.
The bill to amend the Criminal Code was marked "urgent" and handed to the parliament by President Lukashenka on 23 November. Within a month it had easily passed two readings in both the lower and upper chambers of parliament.
A press release from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) comments: "The vague wording of the proposed amendments pave the way to wide discretionary powers for authorities to interpret legitimate human rights activities as illegal attempts to discredit or harm the Belarusian state.
"Aaron Rhodes, Executive Director of the IHF said: 'If adopted this law could be interpreted to render human rights monitoring and reporting as well as any kind of criticism of authorities illegal.'"
According to the IHF and BHC, the new article added to the Criminal Code on "Discrediting the Republic of Belarus" defines "discrediting" as "fraudulent representation of political, economic, social, military or international situation of the Republic of Belarus, the legal status of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus or its government agencies". However, a "fraudulent representation" is likely to be defined as one that contradicts the official government representation. Anyone convicted of such a "crime against the state" may be punished "by arrest of up to six months or imprisonment of up to two years". (Link 2)
Kommersant reports, "The authorities do not hide it that the bill is timed for the next year's presidential elections. Stepan Sukhorenko, deputy head of the country's KGB, claims that the amendments aim to prevent a possible revolutionary change of power, given the experience of other CIS states: 'We are facing a well-developed industry of the training of militants and revolutionists,' he said." Sukhorenko encourages those who are considering spreading negative information to foreign sources to "...read the law and think it over". (Link 3)
Kommersant also notes, "The Soviet criminal code as of 1960 provided for criminal liability for criticism, discredit and contempt of state authorities. Article 70 on the Anti-Soviet Agitation and Propaganda, for example, envisaged a prison term of 5 to 25 years."
MOVING TO LOCK-DOWN MODE
Another bill which has been passed in the lower house would, if passed in the upper house, require "Belarusian students to receive written permission from the Ministry of Education to study abroad if the length of stay is longer than 30 days. Foreign companies seeking to hire Belarusian students for summer jobs also would need ministry approval." The bill is reportedly aimed at clamping down on human trafficking, but it will doubtless have dire consequences for students wanting to attend Western Universities, especially Protestant Christians seeking to pursue theological studies abroad. (Link 4)
Lukashenka is also restricting the movements of Belarus' health care professionals on the grounds that he believes they hold state secrets. Health care professionals must now seek permission to travel outside the country, then report back upon their return and inform the authorities about their contacts with foreigners. State officials must also seek permission and register their trips abroad. (Link 5)
PLENTY OF FRIENDS
Leaders in the free world might not be impressed by Lukashenka's draconian dictatorial policies, but that will not worry him for he has all the friends he needs.
On Monday 5 December, Lukashenka met with China's President Hu Jintao in China's Great Hall of the People. Lukashenka has found a friend in China, which has promised him economic aid and protection from accusations in authoritarianism. (Link 6)
In mid December, Iran's parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel visited Minsk. Upon his return to Tehran Haddad-Adel described his meetings in Belarus as "remarkable". In his meeting with Vladimir Konoplyov, the chairman of the Belarusian National Assembly's Chamber of Representatives, Haddad-Adel reportedly said that Iran and Belarus needed to step up their cooperation in order to withstand outside pressure. "There are various groundless complaints against your country," he said. "We are subject to pressure as well. I believe that independent countries like Belarus and Iran can counter intrigues against them more effectively through joint efforts." Haddad-Adel said that Iran wants Belarus to be a powerful state, and so Iran will never tolerate international organisations putting pressure on Belarus. "Rather, we will help counter such attempts," he said. (This is a deeply concerning statement and open to conjecture.) Lukashenka is planning to visit President Ahmadinejad in Tehran in the Spring of 2006 (presumably after he is re-"elected"). (Link 7)
Belarus already has Europe's most repressive religion laws. However, there is room for things to get worse and all signs indicate that worse is on the way. Isolation, repression and persecution are set to escalate immediately and dramatically. Lukashenka clearly intends to hold on to power by manipulation, fraud and force. What's more, this is bigger than Belarus. This is a wider fight for freedom between forces for and forces against; and no one knows how far either side is prepared to go. For the sake of religious liberty, peace and blessing in Belarus, the 19 March 2006 presidential election ? its lead-up and its aftermath ? must be a key prayer issue for the church worldwide.
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