KYIV – The authoritarian president of Belarus signed a law Tuesday that allows prison sentences of up to three years for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration, the latest move in a relentless crackdown on protests against his rule after nearly 27 years in power.
Previously, taking part in unauthorized demonstrations was punishable by fines or brief jail terms ranging from several days to two weeks. The bill President Alexander Lukashenko signed permits judges to sentence people convicted of joining at least two unauthorized protests over a year to up to three years in prison.
The revised law also toughens the maximum punishment for the “rude violation of public order” from three years to five years in prison. Belarusian authorities have leveled those charges widely against participants in months of protests fueled by Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term in an August election that was widely seen as rigged.
More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands beaten by police during the government's response to the unrest. Belarusian authorities also have relentlessly cracked down on journalists, including blocking several major news websites and outlawing opposition-leaning messaging app channels as extremist.
The wide-ranging repression was spotlighted on May 23, when Belarus diverted a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania to Minsk, where authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist who was on board the airliner.
Since his arrest, Pratasevich, 26, has been shown tearfully repenting for his activities and praising Lukashenko in videotaped remarks aired on state TV. The political opposition has slammed the remarks as coerced.
The legislation signed Tuesday also introduces two-year prison terms for posting “banned information” online, such as calls for the government's ouster.
It follows up on another law approved by Lukashenko last month that bans news media from doing live reports on unauthorized demonstrations and allows the Information Ministry to shut down a media organization without a court order.
The European Union and the United States have responded by sanctioning Belarusian officials involved in allegedly rigging the August election and organizing the clampdown on dissent. Outraged by the Ryanair flight's diversion, the EU also has hit Belarus with new restrictions, barring the country's flag carrier from its skies and airports and advising European airlines to avoid the Belarusian airspace.
At the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told lawmakers Tuesday that the 27-nation bloc is set to impose asset freezes and travel bans on more Belarus officials and companies in coming days.
He said the sanctions would target “critical sectors of the Belarusian economy,” without providing further details.
Diplomats from the EU, the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland and Japan also met with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
In a statement issued after the meeting, they said they emphasized to Makei that “the crisis in Belarus is escalating: the persecution of the opposition, media, civil society, and the society at large, including the Polish community in Belarus, has increased.”
They urged Belarusian authorities to end the crackdown on protests and independent media, to release all political prisoners, to investigate human rights abuses and to launch an inclusive political process resulting in free and fair elections.
Associated Press Writer Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.