Democracy News

Belarus Strengthens Anti-Protest Law Amid Growing Popular Discontent
October 21, 2011
By: Mark Hsen | Printer Friendly

In October, the Belarusian National Assembly amended several laws to significantly impede the rights of citizens to peaceful assemble.  In a closed session on October 4, the Chamber of Representatives, the National Assembly's lower house, approved an amendment on the Law on Mass Events, which would effectively outlaw unsanctioned gatherings.  The amendment is scheduled to be voted on by the upper chamber today.  Other recent amendments have made several laws more stringent towards potential critics of the government. 

These recent amendments are an effort by the government to suppress the opposition, which has developed in reaction to President Alexander Lukashenko's December 2010 re-election, the subsequent post-election crackdown on opposition, and the worsening economic situation.  Lukashenko, often called "Europe's last dictator," was re-elected to his fourth term in an election widely believed to be rigged.  First elected in 1994, he consolidated power through referendums deemed undemocratic by international observers.  In 2004, he removed the presidential two-term limit, allowing him to remain in control of the country.    

Currently, Belarus is suffering from its worst economic crisis since Lukashenko first assumed power.  The Wall Street Journal reported that inflation has become a significant problem with rising food prices threatening the livelihood of many citizens.  The economic situation continued to deteriorate dramatically in summer 2011 when a balance of payments crisis drained hard-currency reserves.  Since spring, the ruble has been devalued by 60 percent.

According to the Associated Press, international spectators believe that the worsening economic situation coupled with increasing oppression may lead to massive social unrest.  No longer able to rely on a strong economy, Lukashenko may be unable to continue buying political support.  However, open criticism of the government has led to brutal confrontations with several hundred protestors and journalists beaten and arrested. 

This past summer, a wave of "silent" protests emerged with demonstrators clapping hands and stomping feet instead of shouting anti-government slogans and carrying signs.  These protests, often organized through the internet, did not violate the law because no anti-government actions were taken.  However, protestors were often beaten and arrested by police.

These new amendments strengthen anti-protests law to include these "silent" protests.  All unsanctioned public gatherings are now outlawed.  Organizers are now unable to announce gatherings before they have been officially sanctioned by the government.  Individuals who previously organized illegal demonstrations or those who had been warned about organizing illegal demonstrations were also banned from organizing new demonstrations.  The list of places where demonstrations were not allowed was also expanded. 

Other recent amendments have expanded obstacles to block opposition groups.  Political parties can no longer receive funds from abroad nor can they keep funds in foreign banks.  Foreigners are now prevented from providing "gratuitous assistance" to Belarusian citizens or organizations for the purpose of conducting activities prohibited by legislation and may be subject to deportation.  The Associated Press also reported that recent legislation increased the power of the KGB secret police. 

The Community of Democracies’ Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society has issued a call to action in regards to these new amendments.  The group has asked the international community to intervene by encouraging the government of Belarus to remove these blanket restrictions to freedom of assembly, which are violations of international human rights obligations.  Chaired by Canada, this Working Group is functions to alert the international community of pending regulatory threats that could seriously affect the effective functioning of civil society.  The objective is to foster diplomatic action and facilitate the exchange of information.

Please see below for a call to action by the Community of Democracies' Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society:

ALL FOR ACTION:  Belarus - Proposed Legislative Amendments Restricting Freedom of Association 
ATTN.:  International Contact Group - Community of Democracies' Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society 

The Working Group calls your urgent attention to legislative amendments adopted by the lower house of Parliament in Belarus on 3 October 2011 that require official authorization by the government for any planned mass presence of citizens in a public place. Further details of the amendments made to the “Law on Mass Events” are not available as the text has not been made public, though some information has been made available in the news media. According to these reports, the implications on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly would be significant. 

Before the law enters into force, it must first pass in the Senate and receive Presidential signoff. The amendments could pass before the Senate on October 20th. 

As a member of the International Contact Group, we ask you to share this Call for Action with your contacts on the ground and join diplomatic efforts already underway by the international community. Please see the following news release issued by the OSCE in August prior to the amendments passing in the lower house outlining concerns with restrictions on freedom of assembly.  

Objective of Call for Action: The objective of this Call for Action is to encourage the Government of Belarus to make the text of the amendments public, and to call for the removal of blanket restrictions to freedom of assembly, which are inconsistent with the country’s international human rights obligations.

For previous news on Belarus, please see: 
Belarusian Police Detain Hundreds of Peaceful Demonstrators; US and EU Extend Sanctions

Wall Street Journal – Discontent Growing in Belarus

Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty – Belarusian Lawmakers Pass New Antiprotest Bill, But Drop Prohibition On 'Inactivity'

Reuters – Belarus outlaws silent rallies over soaring prices

Associated Press – Belarus KGB gets new powers amid growing anger

BBC News – Belarus: Silent protests frighten regime

BBC News – Hundreds arrested in Belarus at anti-Lukashenko rallies



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