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Belarus Criminalises the Discrediting of Lukashenka Regime

December 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.

Elizabeth Kendal
rl-research@crossnet.org.au

Links

1) Early Presidential Vote Likely Means Sparse Candidate List.
20 Dec 2005
http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2005/12/0c068030-98a0-4f74-8002-ef6ea65dfb8d.html

Upcoming presidential election in Belarus likely to end with another
national revolution. 19 Dec 2005
http://english.pravda.ru/world/20/92/370/16645_Belarus.html

2) Criminal prosecution for \'Discrediting the Republic of Belarus\'
IHF/Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Press release. 30 Nov 2005
http://www.ihf-hr.org/documents/doc_summary.php?sec_id=3&d_id=4164

3) Lukashenko\'s Image to Be Kept Clean. 9 Dec 2005
http://www.kommersant.com/page.asp?idr=500&id=633850
Belarusian KGB: Foreign Mass Media Will be Left without
Accreditation and Expelled from Belarus. 2 Dec 2005.
http://www.charter97.org/eng/news/2005/12/02/kgb

4) New Belarus Bill Restricts Online Dating. 16 Dec 2005
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/16/AR2005121600706.html


5) Lukashenka Bans Leaving Country for Health Professionals.
7 Dec 2005
http://www.charter97.org/eng/news/2005/12/07/medik

6) Lukashenko Finds Comrades in China. 7 Dec 2005
http://www.kommersant.com/page.asp?id=633044

7) Iran, Belarus to Combine Forces Against Western Pressure. 16 Dec
2005
http://www.mosnews.com/news/2005/12/16/iranbelarus.shtml
Majlis Speaker back in Tehran from Russia, Belarus visits.
17 Dec 2005
http://www.irna.ir/en/news/view/line-17/0512179453103832.htm

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