MINSK — Authoritarian Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has signed into law amendments to the Criminal Code that further restrict civil rights and the free flow of information amid a crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Lukashenka, a 66-year-old former Soviet collective-farm manager who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has pushed a series of changes through in his rubber-stamp parliament that criminalize criticizing the government or taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations that were sparked by a disputed presidential election last year.
The results of the August 2020 vote handed him a sixth consecutive term but have been rejected by the West.
The amendments, signed by Lukashenka on June 8, toughen the punishment for the “distribution of false information” on the Internet, the participation in and collaboration with “extremist” groups, failure to stop the operations of an organization found by a court to be an extremist group, or the violation of the law on the organization of public gatherings and demonstrations.
They also increase punishments for libel, calls for actions deemed to be aimed at damaging national security, resisting law enforcement officers, attacking or threatening to attack law enforcement officers, and attacking or damaging property belonging to law enforcement officers, judges, jurors and their relatives.
The amendments criminalize verbal insult of law enforcement officers or other official representatives, premeditated blockage of public transportation, discrediting the Republic of Belarus, desecration of national symbols, or calls for illegal public gatherings that led to human deaths.
Last month, Lukashenka enforced several other amendments to legislation severely restricting civil rights and the free flow of information amid what has become the largest and most persistent show of opposition to his rule. More than 33,000 people have been arrested in a crackdown that has left much of the opposition leadership in exile or prison.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.
Lukashenka has denied any wrongdoing with regard to the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down or holding a fresh vote.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have imposed sanctions on him and several senior Belarusian officials in response to the “falsification” of the vote and the postelection crackdown.