Belarus passes tough law to curb upheaval
11:34, 05/12/2005, By Andrei Makhovsky, Reuters
President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, intends to seek re-election next year and has vowed to cut short any mass demonstrations he says are inspired from abroad.
Members gave final approval by a vote of 97-4 to a law setting down tough penalties for anyone convicted of inciting demonstrations, joining illegal organizations or spreading information deemed harmful to national interests.
Belarus` security service, still known by its Soviet-era KGB acronym, said it drew up the bill based on upheavals that helped unseat governments after fraudulent elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
"This is a wholly appropriate way to deal with the situation as it is unfolding around Belarus," KGB head Stepan Sukhorenko told reporters.
"Opponents of those in power are entitled to their opinions, but must express them within limits which do not harm our country."
The U.S. State Department urged the assembly to reconsider its decision and reject the draft legislation. "Adopting such undemocratic legislation could incur serious consequences for Belarusian authorities," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The bill, to be signed into law by Lukashenko, sets penalties of up to three years in prison for various offenses.
Europe`s biggest security and rights body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe, said in a statement it was "gravely concerned" about the legislation and suggested some points "may open the way for arbitrary application of the law.
"As such, these provisions have the potential to become a flagrant violation of a number of the OSCE principles and commitments that Belarus has subscribed to," the OSCE said.
Accused in the West
Lukashenko is accused by Western countries of violating human rights, closing independent media outlets, hounding nongovernmental organizations and blatantly rigging elections.
He is seeking a new term after a referendum, denounced in the West as fraudulent, approved a change in the constitution.
With ratings over 70 percent, he is genuinely popular, especially outside cities. Last week, he vowed to win the election fairly or retire.
Belarus` small liberal and nationalist opposition has set aside its periodic quarrels and rallied behind independent Alexander Milinkevich as its sole challenger to the president.
Activists said the legislation would have little effect.
"It`s clear this will not affect opposition tactics," said Alexei Yanukevich, deputy head of the Popular Front. "As it is, we have few legal means of conducting political activity."
The United Sates and European Union have barred entry to top Belarussian officials and threatened tougher sanctions if next year`s election is found to be neither free nor fair.