On February 18, 2021, the draft amendments to the law “On Countering Extremism” appeared in Telegram channels. These amendments concern three key aspects:
1. extension of the law’s scope;
2. procedural matters;
3. ideological positions.
1. Previously, human rights organizations have criticized the excessively broad and inaccurate definition of “extremism”, which could cover both an actual terrorist act as well as the publication of Adolf Hitler’s portrait on social media. The Belarusian law does not tackle “violent extremism”, such a term is not used in the law. The law allows to qualify such actors as foreign and international organizations; political parties; public and religious organizations as extremist. The proposed amendments add new actors who could fall under the definition of extremist:
- Trade unions;
- Groups (communities, civil society and solidarity initiatives);
- Mass media;
- Individual entrepreneurs.
Four more could be qualified as extremist under the proposed draft:
- Аssistance in extremist activities, receiving training or instruction to engage in extremist activities;
- Insulting or discrediting public authorities and administration, representatives of the government;
- Discrediting the Republic of Belarus;
- Violating of the procedures for organizing and conducting mass events;
Also, the three formerly outlawed activities have broadened in their scope:
- Incitement to racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord was reformulated with the phrase “including the unlawful acts against public order and public morals, property, health, personal freedom, honor and dignity, and family relations’ patterns committed for the specified purposes”;
- Organization and carrying out of mass riots, hooliganism, and acts of vandalism was reformulated to “involving damage or destruction of property, seizure of buildings and structures, other actions disrupting public order, or active participation in them ” on the grounds of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord, political or ideological enmity;
- Distribution of extremist materials was reformulated with the phrase “including extremist symbols“, as well as production, publication, storage, transportation, or distribution of such materials.
In accordance with the last paragraph, the definition of “extremist materials” could broaden to refer to, first of all, “extremist symbols and paraphernalia” – a novelty of this draft law. An important addition to the definition is that it outlaws information products “designed for public use and demonstration, public distribution or distribution by any other means with the purpose of recruitment into extremist activities and propaganda, as well as any other property, including cash, equipment and materials, technical resources, including software, in respect of which there is reason to believe that they are being used or could be used for preparation, carrying out of extremist activities or its’ propaganda, and recognized as extremist by the court judgement, including in regards to the Nazi symbols and paraphernalia – by international military tribunals and the courts“.
The definition of “extremist organization” was reformulated with the wording “or providing other assistance for extremist activities“.
Another novelty is the term “neo-Nazism”:
“Neo-Nazism is the ideology and practice of political or social movements arising after the Second World War, adhering to National Socialism and similar views.”
The term about Nazi symbols and paraphernalia has become “extremist”, now it may refer to graffiti and logos, and the article has been added with references to copyright.
The list of bodies tasked with counter extremism could also expand to include jusdicial bodies, financial investigation bodies, and financial monitoring bodies, as well as local authorities and administrations.
For the first time in Belarus, personal data protection is enshrined at the legislative level, but only in the following terms: “personal data about officials of state counter-extremism bodies are confidential“.
During suspension of an organization’s activity by prosecutors it is also additionally prohibited:
- to nominate candidates for elected positions, participate in election campaigns, elections and referendums;
- hold congresses, conferences, and general meetings.
- In addition, the draft law stipulates restrictions prohibiting certain activities of “extremist” organizations for 5 years as follows:
- individual entrepreneurs who are recognized as extremist should re-register as individual entrepreneurs;
- after serving a criminal sentence for “extremist articles” it is prohibited to engage in medical, educational, publishing activities; to engage in activities related to trafficking of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, their precursors, weapons and ammunition, explosives; to perform financial transactions in excess of 2000 basic units without special scrutiny (not specified which); to hold public office.
2. As for the procedural matters, the law proposes to make the State Security Committee (KGB) the principal body in countering extremism. More authorities could issue an inquiry into suspect extremist activities (previously only the prosecutor’s office had such power). A second inquiry constitutes a ground for termination of the activities of organizations, mass media, and individual entrepreneurs, and who should take measures to prevent extremism in the course of a month .
An official order banning extremist activities could be issued in 3 days. A second official warning and order may become the ground for the liquidation of the organization.
Suspension of the activities of registered organizations, representative offices of foreign and international organizations, and individual entrepreneurs is regulated in more detail – now this could be done not only by the decision of the Prosecutor General, but also by the regional prosecutors. They are authorized to suspend the activities and file an application to the Supreme Court to recognize an organization as extremist and demand its closure. They are also authorized to request the seizure of such organization’s property.
The registered organizations are to be recognized as extremist by the Supreme Court, and the unregistered “groups” – by the decision of the State Security Committee (with the possibility of court appeal).
The list of extremist organizations, which includes organizations, individual entrepreneurs, their symbols and paraphernalia, and individuals is being created and maintained by the KGB. The ground for being included into the list of individuals is an enforceable sentence on “extremist” articles. The procedure for keeping and publishing the list is determined by the Council of Ministers.
The draft law stipulates an appeal procedure against orders, official warnings, and decisions of the KGB, but does not provide for a procedure to appeal against inclusion in the list of “terrorists”.
3. The draft law also contains “ideological positions” – for example, the bodies that register political parties, public and religious organizations should make “an assessment of the risks of destructive processes in the society“. The definition of “extremism” was added with such wording as “family relations’ patterns”, and the last article states that “using public telecommunications networks, including the Internet, for carrying out extremist activities is prohibited“. It is also prohibited to use “national historical and cultural values” to “call for extremist activities” (for example, this may relate to the image of the historical coat of arms “Pagonya”).
What does it mean in practice and what is wrong with the draft law?
In 2020, the use of anti-extremist legislation became a tool for silencing dissent and a mechanism of restricting rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The proposed amendments would make it possible to call any form of peaceful protest and any activities of the civil society “extremist” – because of the broad wording and the wide range of powers given to the state authorities. The focus on “groups” that can be recognized as extremist by the decision of the KGB undermines any opportunity of self-organization and solidarity of citizens, including in response to mass repressions and gross human rights violations.
Any attempt to use a white-red-white flag and the coat of arms “Pagonya” is likely to be persecuted. The conviction in a “mass riots” case or repeated participation in peaceful demonstrations could put one on the list of “extremists”, which entails restriction of the number of rights for 5 years after serving their sentence.
In this regard, we consider it unacceptable to adopt amendments to anti-extremist legislation, and request:
- to abandon the practice of persecuting citizens for any peaceful manifestations of political dissent; to release all political prisoners; to guarantee the freedom of expression, as well as the freedom of assembly and association;
- to bring national legislation in conformity with international standards in order to prevent the arbitrary use of restrictions on the freedom of expression, as well as to repeal the “anti-extremist” laws in their present form (to declare the Law “On Countering Extremism” null and void, to decriminalize part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code, Articles 361-1, 362-2 and all defamatory articles (art. 188, 189, 367, 368, 369, 369-1, 391 and 370) of the Criminal Code);
- when determining the admissibility of restrictions on the freedom of expression, to be guided by the international legal obligations of the Republic of Belarus – foremost, by the Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, obligations within the framework of the OSCE, taking into account their interpretation by the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human Rights.
- to take into account the Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality, the Rabat Plan of Action on the Prohibition of Advocacy of National, Racial or Religious Hatred that constitutes Incitement to Discrimination, Hostility or Violence, as well as the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Opinion and Access to Information.