Law criminalizes criticism of the state and Lukashenko

New York, December 22, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists deplores a new law that makes criticism of authoritarian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and his government punishable by up to five years in prison. Lukashenko secretly signed the amendments to the penal code on December 15. They were registered on December 20 and will become law at the end of the year, the Minsk-based human rights organization Charter 97 said in a statement.

“It is outrageous that the Belarusian authorities have made criticism punishable by jail,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “With this law President Lukashenko has effectively outlawed opposition.”

Both houses of parliament approved the legislation in early December. The United States, the European Union, and the Council of Europe, a 46-nation human rights defense grouping, have all condemned the law.

The law provides up to five years in jail for those who disseminate through the media “appeals” to international organizations or foreign governments, which authorities deem harmful to the security interests of Belarus. The legislation neither explains what is meant by appeals nor defines “harmful to security interests.” Anyone convicted of “discrediting the Republic of Belarus” or “presenting false information about political, social, military, or foreign policy in Belarus” can be sentenced to two years in prison. Local journalists and human rights advocates voiced outrage at the law.

The law comes just three months ahead of a presidential election scheduled for March 19, 2006. The election was planned for July 2006 but parliament brought it forward to make it difficult for Belarus’s beleaguered opposition to organize a campaign, The New York Times said.

Under the new law candidates could be accused of destabilizing the country. “Those representatives of alternate candidates or candidates themselves who speak negatively [about the situation in Belarus] – and whose statements are published in foreign media – may be held accountable,” a Belarusian former constitutional judge told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In October 2004 Lukashenko won a national referendum to amend Belarus’s constitution with a provision that allows him to seek reelection indefinitely. The referendum results were widely criticized as marred.