Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has signed into law legislation that allows police and security forces to shoot at demonstrators.
The law, endorsed by Lukashenka on May 17, frees law enforcement officers from responsibility for damages inflicted on protesters by physical attack, firearms, combatant and special equipment if in such cases the actions are deemed “legal.”
The law is part of a broad legislative move approved by lawmakers in April that severely restricts civil rights and the free flow of information amid a crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have rallied across the country since a presidential election in August 2020 that Lukashenka claims to have won but opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters have deemed fraudulent.
The demonstrators have demanded Lukashenka’s resignation and fresh elections, but Belarus’s strongman has been defiant. Security officials have arrested thousands and forced Tsikhanouskaya and other top opposition figures out of the country.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.
Lukashenka, who has run Belarus since 1994, and other top officials have been slapped with sanctions by the West, which refuses to recognize him as the legitimate leader of the country.
According to the new law endorsed by Lukashenka, police can also ban taking recordings of the dispersal of unsanctioned demonstrations, search the personal belongings and vehicles of individuals, and obtain citizens’ personal data without a warrant.
The law also says that officials, law enforcement officers, judges, members of electoral bodies, and pro-government journalists are eligible for state protection, including a secured job change and plastic surgery if they face a threat to their lives, health, and property.
Though the size and frequency of demonstrations have waned in recent months, Lukashenka has ramped up the crackdown on activists and independent journalists.
Many media outlets and websites have come under pressure for covering the demonstrations and reporting on police brutality.
On May 18, financial police searched the central and regional offices of media outlets Tut.by and Hoster.by, which have closely followed the violent crackdown.
According to the websites’ staff, police also searched the homes of editors for the two websites.